The Color Purple – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

When the Broadway musical, The Color Purple, first came to the valley, it was part of the original national tour that began in 2007 and ended 2010.  Like its Broadway presentation, the original tour mounted a large scale production with a huge cast of 34 performers, recreating as much of midtown Manhattan’s The Broadway Theatre presentation as possible. The Color Purple that opened last evening at ASU Gammage in Tempe and will continue until this Sunday, April 22, is not that production. And more power to it. With its revamped, scaled-back look, and a cast reduced to 17, the focus is entirely on the actors, and the improvements are startling.

Despite the original production’s commercial success, including its eleven Tony Award nominations (it won only one: Best Actress in a Musical) its critical reception was mixed, and with good reason. The production that came to ASU Gammage more than a decade ago was less than memorable, with a book by Marsha Norman that, while recreating all the key elements of Alice Walker’s original novel, never quite captured the essence of what made Walker’s real-life tale so emotionally involving. If anything, the huge, Oprah Winfrey backed production felt over-produced; its presentation dwarfed the narrative. Even the score felt lacking. The whole affair, while impressive to view, kept audiences’ involvement at bay. Nothing fully stirred in the way it was intended.

What you’ll see now at ASU Gammage is a production that began life in 2013 at a fringe theatre in London, The Menier Chocolate Factory, then transferred to Broadway. This minimalist presentation removed set and scenery, cut the cast, and focused everything solely on the players. While Norman’s book adaptation remains the same, by having nothing extra to divert attention away from actors, the overall effect is considerably different. The plight of Celie, her abuse, her problems of fighting not only a racist white culture, but also a black patriarchal culture, and eventually overcoming them in unexpected and inspiring ways, is now front and center; her conflicts feel far more affecting.

Director John Doyle’s new set design is an incomplete mosaic of splintered wood that reaches from the floor to the ceiling. There’s a raw, harsh reality to the unfinished look that acts as a visual reminder to the harsh and incomplete life that Celie (Adrianna Hicks) lives, submitting to her father in his bed so that her younger sister, Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) doesn’t have to, then later, married to the cruel, whip-cracking, abusive husband known only as Mister (Gavin Gregory), a marriage endured only because it saves Celie’s sister from having to experience the same thing.

But some of those elements that never quite clicked with the original production still remain. If you’re familiar with Alice Walker’s book (or the Steven Speilberg film, for that matter) the story’s first half, while establishing Celie’s life, that marriage, and her relationship with Juke Joint singer Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart), tells its tale, but goes through the motions without the emotional hook you should be feeling. To be fair, part of the problem might be less with the show or the adaptation but the witnessing of these events while seated in a large auditorium rather than experiencing them in smaller, more intimate surroundings. There’s still a distance felt. It’s the second half where satisfaction and the emotional resolutions finally payoff. As you leave, its the events of the second half that leave with you.

Another issue that can’t be completely resolved is the score. The songs of the ensemble are serviceable and suit the individual moments, but are hardly memorable. Things are more effective with the solos. Shrug’s salacious Push Da Button, sung at the Juke Joint, is raunchy fun, while Mister’s reflective ballad, Celie’s Curse, succeeds in actually finding a moment of sympathy for a character who is largely objectionable. But it’s Celie’s empowering I’m Here that brings the big applause.

Like the rest of the score, it’s not so much the writing of the song, it’s the performance behind it. When Celie sings of finding a love within after having lived a life of hell, Adrianna Hicks’ delivery hits every emotional button. It’s a song performed with such a fiery passion, so full of energy and drama, that by the end, you may feel as exhausted when watching it as Hicks must feel when performing it.

Other than the chairs unhooked from that wooden backdrop used to suggest characters seated around a dinner table, at a church, in a living room, or at a Juke Joint, there are no other sets or props used; it’s all down to theatrical suggestion, performance, and musical presentation. And it’s by having your attention intentionally narrowed in this way that makes director Doyle’s redesigned production such an improvement over the original. As musical theatre, The Color Purple now works better than it ever did.

The Color Purple continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, Aprill 22

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