Purple reigns at SHN’s Orpheum

Purple 1
Adrianna Hicks (above center) is Celie in the North American touring cast of The Color Purple, a musical based on Alice Walker’s novel and the 1985. The show is part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre. Below: Hicks (left) bonds with N’Jameh Camara as sister Nettie. Photos by Matthew Murphy

When I originally reviewed the musical version of The Color Purple based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the Steven Spielberg’s 1985 movie version, I felt the production was too Broadway slick and the score was too bland. The only thing that worked – and indeed the thing that saved that October 2007 touring production – was Walker’s story and her powerful characters. (Read the review here.)

That was only 11 years ago, but The Color Purple is back. The original production (which boasted Oprah Winfrey, who made her screen debut in the movie, as a producer) ran for three years on Broadway and toured successfully across the country. But British director John Doyle saw something more in the show, so he stripped it down to its bare essentials and remounted it in London. That production, which transferred to Broadway and won a Tony for best revival in 2015, is now on tour and has pulled into the Orpheum Theater as part of the SHN season.

Doyle’s faith in the story is well placed. Even when the score (by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray veers from emotionally powerful to schmaltzy, the plot and characters carry the day in this shrewdly re-focused production. Doyle even designed the simple unit set: rough-hewn wood walls covered by hanging chairs. Those chairs are utilized in many ways – creating a prison, a church, an African village, farm equipment – all of which are simple and effective. Wicker baskets are also well used to help create the workaday world of rural Georgia in the Great Depression.

Without much Broadway flash, it’s up to the company to provide the passion, and for the most part, this touring company delivers. Vocally, the show is a feast (though the sometimes excruciating volume of the amplification in the Orpheum does them a disservice), from the first gospel-tinged number, “Mysterious Ways,” to the gorgeous title song and its attempt to find God in the smallest, most beautiful details.

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The pacing is too often rushed as the cast scurries to get the show in under the 2 1/2-hour mark, but there are standout moments in this story of Celie (Adrianna Hicks), a woman for whom life has been one kind of abuse after another. If it’s not her father raping her and giving away their children, it’s her husband, Mister (Gavin Gregory), working her like livestock and actively combating any shred of happiness she might find.

The bright lights in Celie’s life also spark the show itself, which means this show belongs almost entirely to the women (the men are fine, but they’re mostly bad guys or chumps). The first burst of light comes with the arrival of honky tonk singer Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart), who gives Celie her first taste of love and self-confidence. Another force in Celie’s life is Sofia (Carrie Compere), a woman with all the power and confidence (and charm and sass) that Celie lacks.

Shug’s juke joint performance of “Push da Button” continues to be a showstopper, as does Sofia’s “Hell No!” The rest of the score is pleasantly unremarkable, which is a shame. This is a story of awakening that deserves a timeless that is so clear and so sophisticated that it seems to have always existed.

We get a glimpse of that in Celie’s aria of awakening, “I’m Here,” beautifully performed by Hicks. Even with the hurried pace of the show, even with some performances that don’t spark the right chemistry or earn the necessary emotional weight, the import of Celie’s transformation comes through, and the connection of family, both genetic and emotional, makes for an ending that wrings honest tears.

Director Doyle knew that the more he pared down the musical (a song or two cut, a judicious paring down of dialogue) to make way for the heart of Walker’s novel, the better of we’d all be. He was absolutely right, and now The Color Purple feels like it’s almost a great musical.

The Color Purple continues through May 27 at the SHN Orpheum Theatre, 1945 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $55-$246. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

`Purple’ prose winner

Michael Tubbs, a 12th grader at Franklin High School in Sacramento County, is the winner of the essay contest sponsored by the musical production of The Color Purple now at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco.

Out of nine semi-finalists, Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the original novel, chose Tubbs as the winner of the contest, which asked students to address the topic: “How I Changed My Own Life.”

Tubbs’ essay, Walker said, “has won the contest because it exemplifies what The Color Purple is about: the belief that each of us has an indomitable spirit within us that we can trust to carry us through perils.”

You can read Tubbs’ essay at www.shnsf.com/news/article along with Walker’s comments on the essay. The site also features a an audio slide show of Walker working with a Skyline High School English class and discussing the essay challenge.

The semifinalists included: Casey Brydon (Berkeley High), Kylie Carera (Ecole Bilingue), Marilyn Chao (Skyline High), Natasha Lowery (Ecole Bilingue), Desiree Brittany Sims (Berkeley High), Makayla Williams (American Indian Public Charter School) and Neal Williams (Las Lomas High).

The Color Purple continues at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco, through Dec. 9. Call 415-512-7770 or visit www.shnsf.com or www.ticketmaster.com for information.

Review: `The Color Purple’

Opened Oct. 12, 2007 at the Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco

Purple musical finally finds its voice
Three stars: Lumpy, ultimately beautiful bundle

Those first few moments of the overture are crushing as you think, “Hey, I came here for The Color Purple, not for `Rejected Themes from `The Love Boat.’

In theory, the notion of turning Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a musical makes perfect sense. In fact, Steven Spielberg’s 1985 movie version had so much music (all created under the astute guidance of Quincy Jones), it was practically a musical itself.

Walker’s story of Celie, a resilient young woman raped by her father beginning at age 12 and victim of seemingly every indignity in the years that follow, is prime musical material. At the core of Walker’s story is the strength of love, the power of faith and the divine right to find — and use — the voice we’re given. All of that is prime fodder for the musical theater stage.

With a team of producers so numerous it resembles a directory for a downtown law firm (with the name Oprah Winfrey prominently listed before everyone else), The Color Purple opened on Broadway in 2005, won a Tony Award for its leading lady (LaChanze as Celie). The show has proven to be a sturdy hit and is now on tour.

At San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre for Friday’s opening-night performance, the audience was primed for an Oprah-endorsed hit inspired by the Bay Area’s own Walker.

Then that darn overture started spilling from the orchestra pit, and when the music by composers Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray didn’t sound like bad 1970s TV themes, it sounded like incidental music for the dusty, sparkly Jubilee! spectacular in Las Vegas.

In the nearly three hours that follow, what we get from these Purple pros is a slick Broadway concoction that is streamlined for the masses. Director Gary Griffin has trouble deciding just how serious he wants this show to be. Is it a piece of social and artistic significance such as Porgy and Bess? It could easily have been, but it’s not.

Is it more of a musical-by-committee mess than that, aspiring to be something for everyone. Early on, as we see Celie (played by the extraordinary Jeannette Bayardelle, above left) abused by her father, her husband and life in general, the gravity of her situation keeps being upended by the presence of three church ladies (Kimberly Ann Harris, Virginia Ann Woodruff and Lynette Dupree), who pick a little and talk a little in brief attempts at comic relief.

This is The Color Purple, which takes place in Georgia in the first half of the 20th century. We don’t expect — or need — comic relief. This is an early misstep in Marsha Norman’s book.

Griffin’s direction aims for machine-like efficiency and mostly succeeds, though it seems whenever there’s any chasing or running onstage, his staging turns ridiculous.

There’s no room in this story for the ridiculous — except if we can consider cruelty, ignorance and heartlessness ridiculous.

Walker’s story is powerful, and no Broadway musical machine can prevent it from connecting with the audience. That is the ultimate triumph of this Purple.

For all the mediocre songs (you want proof? Try “Big Dog” or “Miss Celie’s Pants”) and Broadway gloss, there’s a show here that pulsates with compassion and love and redemption. Even the score, when it attempts to fire up some gospel energy (“Mysterious Ways”) or create a somewhat authentic 1920s juke joint number (“Push Da Button”) breaks out of its pop doldrums.

We get glimpses of beauty in the stage pictures created by John Lee Beatty’s set and Brian MacDevitt’s lights, which traffic heavily in silhouettes. But where this show lives is in the performances of its cast.

Bayardelle, a veteran of the Broadway production, anchors the story as Celie. Her expressive face, and even better, her powerhouse voice elevate the show and give it dignity and emotional heft.

Would that she had a better vocal partner on the affecting duet “What About Love?” Michelle Williams (of Destiny’s Child fame), as juke joint singer Shug Avery, was not in great voice Friday. The song, which gives voice to Celie’s first true love, should be a standout, but Williams couldn’t quite muster up the power.

The touring production is fortunate to have another Broadway veteran, Felicia P. Fields (above left) as Sofia. Watching this fine comedian and dramatic actor strut her potent stuff through “Hell No!” and then later make love on a porch (“Any Little Thing,” sung with the charming Stu James as Harpo) is a delight. Like Bayardelle, Fields knows the line between serious theater and musical theater, and she’s comfortable on both sides.

Also notable is sweet-voiced LaToya London (one of the few good things to come from “American Idol”) as Nettie, Celie’s sister.

Unlike most musicals, where things tend to drop off after intermission, Act 2 of The Color Purple is all payoff. The story starts in 1909, but by the second act we’re in the ’30s and ’40s. There are about half as many songs in this act, and that’s a good thing.

Bayardelle’s Celie finally triumphs against the oppressive forces (namely her “husband” Mister, played by Rufus Bonds Jr.) in her life and gets her own aria at last: “I’m Here.”

Act 2’s Africa fantasia falls short both musically (so what else is new?) and choreographically. Donald Byrd’s movement, which tries to marry authenticity with Broadway pizzazz, squanders much of the number’s energy.

But Act 2 also introduces the score’s best song: “The Color Purple,” a simple choral number that serves as a prayer to the better things in a harsh world. The warmth of the song wraps gently around the story’s tear-jerking conclusion and hits that sweet musical theater spot where emotion, sound and story become spirit.

After the opening-night curtain call (and enthusiastic, not just rote, standing ovation), producer Scott Sanders introduced a radiant Walker, who deservedly took a bow and kindly accepted a proclamation from the mayor’s office proclaiming Alice Walker Day in San Francisco.

Walker should take a great big bow. Her story, it seems, can survive any adaptation and remain true to its beautiful, wounded, triumphant heart.

The Color Purple continues at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco, through Dec. 9. Visit www.shnsf.com for information.

Color her proud: Oakland’s LaToya London stars in `Purple’

When she was born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, she was called LaToya London, the name the country got to know when she emerged as someone to watch on Season 3 of “American Idol.”

But these days, the “LaToya” is history and the “London” is preferred.

“I love the name I was born with, but as an artist, I prefer to be called London,” says the 28-year-old _ now with a single name, like Cher or Madonna. She’s on the phone from Chicago, where she’s finishing up the run of the hit Broadway musical The Color Purple.

London and the Purple company get some time off in between the Chicago run and the Oct. 9 opening at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre.

“Physically, I’m in Chicago, but my mind isn’t. It’s already home,” London says, referring to the Bay Area, where her mom, sisters, nieces, nephews and large extended family all live.

“The thing I miss about Oakland is the scenery,” London says. “The lake, the Bay, the bridge, driving down 80 and seeing the bridge over the water and that whole view when the sun is about to set.”

The Color Purple run in Chicago has been a good one for London, who received some nice reviews for her portrayal of Nettie, sister of main character Celie (played on tour by Jeannette Bayardelle(below, left, with London), a veteran of the still-running Broadway production).

Though the musical version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Walker novel was not fully embraced by critics, audiences have been another story. The show has proven profitable and quite popular.

“It’s a wonderful story of inspiration to anyone going through something negative in their life,” London says. “It’s a life-changing show. The musical is closer to the book than the movie was, and the music adds a whole other element. I wasn’t sure how they were going to do it. Musicals can get cheesy, and this is not a cheesy story. But (composers) Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray did it brilliantly.”

More accustomed to the life of an independent singer, London says the theater is a grind.

“Eight shows a week — that’s the hardest part,” she says. “I’m used to the schedule I like. This is more like a 9-to-5 job. It’s definitely an adjustment for me.”

But she does love the acting. “Every night I discover something different about myself, and I feel my capability,” she says. “I just can’t wait to go further with different characters. Nettie is close to who I am, so it’s easy to relate. To challenge myself, I hope my next role is completely different.”

London was in Oakland briefly a couple weeks ago at her old high school, Skyline, to help launch a Color Purple-related essay contest.

The topic is “How I Changed My Life,” and if she had to write an essay on that subject, London says she’d write about how she changed her life by taking responsibility.

“When you stop blaming other people and actually embrace who you are, you can change yourself for the better,” London says. “No one can make you do anything, especially as an adult. That’s when you stop making excuses and start taking action to create your own destiny.”
Next up for London: a second album — “definitely soulful but fun and funny and spunky, more of who I am” — and movies.

“I’d like to work with Quentin Tarantino and do some drama or action,” she says. “We’ll see what comes along.”

London has been back to visit Skyline several times since her star has ascended, and every time, folks at the school are thrilled to see her and make a fuss.

“They treat me good,” London says. “That’s definitely different from when I went there.”

Then she laughs. The humorous side of London, the one she wants to make more visible in her next recording, is something America didn’t get to see much while she was on “Idol.”

“I was so quiet and reserved on the show,” London says. “There’s other sides to me. My friends and family see those sides every day, and they say to me, `The people didn’t get to knwo who you were. You’re fun and funny. Get that out there.’ I’m like a comedian and an improvisational actress. There are some people I know who would say about me, `This girl is nuts.’ It’s time for me to put that out there and let everyone see that.”

During our conversation, that fun side emerged several times. When I asked London if, during the Chicago run of Purple she got to spend any quality time with the show’s big-name producer, Oprah Winfrey. London said that some cast members were invited to be in the audience for a taping of Oprah’s show, and during one of the commercial breaks, Oprah introduced them.

“Afterward, we got to have our pictures taken with her, so there was a little small talk,” London says. “So I didn’t get quality time with her. I did have an orgy with her, but I had to share her.”

Then there’s a wicked little laugh. “Moving right along…” London says.

For information about The Color Purple, visit www.shnsf.com.

And if you’re wondering if London has the goods or if she’s another “American Idol” hype machine by-product, just check out this clip of her singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade” on the show.

`Purple’ prose

Alice Walker, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple, is now looking for the color of excellence.

Last week at Oakland’s Skyline High School, Walker kicked off a Bay Area-wide essay contest in conjunction with the touring Broadway musical based on The Color Purple, which opens Oct. 9 at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre.

The contest is open to middle school and high school students and it involves writing a 500-word essay. The subject — selected by Walker — is “How I Changed My Own Life.”

The essays will be read by a Bay Area panel of judges who will select the semifinalists. Walker will then choose the winner. Nine semifinalists will receive a pair of tickets each to The Color Purple, and the winner’s essay will be critiqued by Walker, framed for the author and published on www.colorpurple.com. The winner receives four tickets to the musical and a signed copy of The Color Purple, A Memory Book of the Broadway Musical.

Essays can be submitted at www.colorpurple.com/essay or mailed to the Oakland Tribune at 7677 Oakport St., Suite 950, Oakland, CA 94621. Submissions must be received by midnight, Oct. 6.

Walker said she chose the theme of the essay contest because it relates to her novel. “I suggested `How I Changed My Own Life’ to inspire students to consider their own agency in choosing the life they wish to have,” Walker said. “Celie in The Color Purple changes her own life by learning to read and, later, to write.”

The contest kick-off was held at Skyline because LaToya London, who plays Nettie in the musical, is a Skyline graduate. The school, London said, “gave me the tools and confidence to pursue my dream of performing. It’s exciting for me to return here and talk to students about how a good education can open up a world of opportunities.”

For information about The Color Purple show times and tickets, visit www.shnsf.com.

Casting announced for `Purple’ tour

Tickets go on sale Sunday, Aug. 19 for The Color Purple, the Oprah Winfrey-produced musical based on Alice Walker’s novel of the same name.

Jeannette Bayardelle (below, center), who comes from the Broadway cast (the show is a Broadway hit — it opened last December at the Broadway Theatre), will play lead character Celie. Felicia P. Fields, Tony nominated in the role of Sofia (Winfrey’s role in the Spielberg movie), reprises the role for the tour. Michelle Williams (below, left), formerly of Destiny’s Child, plays jook joint singer Shug Avery. And Celie’s sister, Nettie, will be played by Oakland native and former “American Idol” contestant LaToya London.

The tour opens Oct. 9 at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco and continues through Dec. 9.

Also in the cast are Rufus Bonds Jr. (Mister), Stu James (Harpo) and Stephanie St. James (a Santa Rosa native as Squeak).

Tickets range from $35 to $99. Call (415) 512-7770 or visit www.shnsf.com.

You can also check out a “backstage at The Color Purple” podcast here.

`Chaperone,’ `Purple’ in new season

We’re not getting sleepy, but we are getting Drowsy.

The hit Broadway musical The Drowsy Chaperone (above), winner of five 2006 Tony Awards, is part of SHN’s new Best of Broadway season, which was announced Wednesday.

“This season is for families and the young at heart,” says SHN president and owner Carole Shorenstein Hays, who produces shows at San Francisco’s Curran, Orpheum and Golden Gate theaters.

The season opens in the fall (no exact dates were announced) with the Oprah Winfrey-produced musical version of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The gospel-, jazz- and pop-tinged score is by Grammy-winners Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.

A culturally diverse version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens next spring in a production full of actors, dancers, martial arts experts, musicians and street acrobats from India and Sri Lanka. The show has been a hit in South Asia and at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. The San Francisco engagement marks the show’s North American premiere.

Chaperone, a throwback to zany musicals of the 1920s, is slated for summer 2008, as is director Des McAnuff’s reinvention of The Wiz, which already made a splash at the La Jolla Playhouse last year.

“I’m having a love affair with San Francisco,” says McAnuff, who also directed the oft-extended hit Jersey Boys at the Curran Theatre. “We are reinventing `The Wiz’ with a multiracial cast and a wired Web sensibility. This will be theater you enter rather than watch.”

A fifth Best of Broadway show is still to be announced.

Season subscriptions range from $140 to $516. Call (415) 551-2050 or visit www.shnsf.com for information.