I finally got around to seeing The Color Purple last night, and in retrospect I can't really understand why it took me so long. I wasn't initially interested in seeing it on Broadway, probably because I'm really not a fan of Stephen Spielberg's cartoonish movie version.
When I did get a ticket to see the show, I got stuck in traffic and missed the performance. By the time I got around to taking advantage of the Broadway Theater's past dating procedures, the show had closed. So, I as glad to see that national tour would be making a stop at Boston's cavernous Wang Theater. (OK, Joseph, that's your cue to giggle.)
The key strength of the show lies in its book, by Marsha Norman (The Secret Garden, 'night, Mother). The show starts off with a slightly muddled opening sequence involving a church service, soloist, and chatty church ladies singing "Mysterious Ways," a gospel number of questionable relevance. Interspersed throughout the song are little scene-letts that introduce the main characters, but if you hadn't read the book, or seen the movie, you might be confused at this point as to whom the show is really about.
But the book eventually settles into a vibrant telling of a compelling story. Norman crafts some masterful sequences, including one that juxtaposes a raid on an African village with the beating of one of the main characters, emphasizing the ubiquity of black suffering at the hands of callous whites in the early 20th century.
My chief complaint with the show lies in its bland, unmemorable score, with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. Among the three of them, the only person who has any other Broadway credits is Willis, who provided additional lyrics for the disastrous Hot Feet. The lack of theatrical experience shows. Most of the songs never rise above serviceable, although some are pleasant enough, particularly the touching "Too Beautiful for Words." But somehow the show still works with an unremarkable score, which is a credit to the power of Alice Walker's original novel, as well as the skill of book-writer Norman and her able director, Gary Griffin.
I did have some quibbles with the show. There are some awkward scene tags, some sequences that go on too long, and a second act that loses momentum toward the end. But the emotional ending is a real tearjerker, and I for one was tremendously moved. And props to Norman and company for addressing the lesbian love story head-on, rather than wussing out, as Spielberg did with the movie.
Although I would really have loved to have seen Tony-winning LaChanze play the role of Celie, the delightful Kenita Miller does a bang-up job with the role, spanning forty years of Celie's growth and blossoming with passionate aplomb. Also on hand from the original cast were the sassy Felicia Fields as Sofia and charming Brandon Victor Dixon as Harpo. (Click on Dixon's name to get a look at his somewhat overly dynamic Web site. It's a trip.)
I was disheartened to see that the orchestra of the Wang was less than half full last night. If you're in the Boston area, I highly recommend the show, which runs here until June 28th. You can get discount tickets at Theatermania for $39.50. (You have to be a member, but it's free to join.) Or you could just wait for the movie version of the musical, which is currently in development. But I would suggest seeing it live. The Color Purple has an infectious energy, and despite the hardships that the story portrays, is ultimately a joyous and affirming experience.
UPDATE: I've been listening to the cast album for The Color Purple over the past two days, and I must say that the score is growing on me, particularly "Our Prayer," "Big Dog," "Brown Betty" and "Any Little Thing." Overall I still find the score somewhat bland, but theatrically effective. Most of the songs have an undifferentiated feel about them, at least upon first listening, and are a bit too adult contemporary and watered-down R&B for my taste.