When the The Color Purple opened on Broadway back in December of 2005 we raved, “Hallelujah! The new musical is a joyous celebration of the human spirit, culled from Alice Walkers 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning novel,” and exclaimed “The impassioned tale is a shimmering mosaic, a triumph in every way. Here is a serious musical graced with intelligence and humor that is destined to become a classic.”
Now well into a second year, The Color Purple, produced and promoted by Oprah Winfrey, has recouped its entire $11 million investment in less than a year and is well on the way to fulfilling our prophecy. Over a million audience members from around the world have seen the Broadway production and the first North American Tour kicked off in Chicago this past April. Granted the box office began to sag a bit at around the year mark, so in an attempt to keep the house at near capacity, the producers have turned to television for aid, and cast Fantasia of American Idol fame as Celie. She even appeared on Oprah to speak about her Broadway debut and to get the word out. Her casting has had the desired effect and her limited engagement has been extended through January 6, 2008.
In case you don’t watch Television or haven’t heard, Fantasia is the 21 year old woman who emerged victorious over Jennifer Hudson in the season three finale of American Idol. Fantasia’s appearance has garnered rave reviews and her performance has been hailed as a “must see” star turn that won her the 2007 Theater World Award. LaChanze, who created Celie for the World Premier in Atlanta and the subsequent Broadway opening, won, as we predicted, a Tony Award for Best Actress in a musical, so Fantasia has some mighty gigantic shoes to fill.
The gifted soul singer is remarkable delivering an instinctive towering portrayal that is uniquely her own. She has some amazing moments that are absolutely glowing, and she is more naturally suited to the role than her predecessor, which adds weight to her interpretation of the down trodden Celie at the story’s center. Considering her own history as a struggling 17 year old, uneducated, single black mother, she appears to be perfectly suited with a wealth of associations to draw from, but although her charismatic presence is indeed memorable, her lack of technique renders her convincing characterization rather mannered and one noted. Her presence, although lacking nuance is riveting and the lady is unquestionably a star. She sings with affecting sweetness on the moving lullaby “Somebody Gonna Love You,” and makes “I’m Here,” a triumphantly raw affirmation of spirit.
The novel has been faithfully adapted for the stage by Marsha Norman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for ‘Night Mother, and she beautifully distills the many stories in the epic novel to their essence while adhering closely to the source material. We follow Celia, a homely young black girl living in Georgia, as she embarks on a 40 year journey to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds of poverty and repeated abuse. We watch her evolution from passive illiterate to a confident loving woman of means and accomplishment.
The score is a blend of gospel, blues, African and pop songs, beautifully orchestrated expressions that speed the story’s development while highlighting the underlying message. The dynamic opening number, “Mysterious Ways,” sets a tone for much of what follows cutting against the grain of the show’s bleak center to rejoice in the joy of being alive.
The show directed by Gary Griffin remains polished and razor sharp. The colorful production retains its vitality with an accomplished cast of professionals. The choreography is an effective blend of raw sexuality and a blissful good time that now has more of an emphasis on the humorous fun.
As we took our seats in the theatre we were handed our program with four slips of papers indicating there were seven understudies in various roles, so commenting on the show feels awkward and a bit unfair. Despite all the gloss and the professionalism, the musical just didn’t retain the buoyant sparkle from our initial visits early in the run and despite unexpected moments of rawness from the star, the evening felt measured as opposed to lived in.
We have to admit after all the hype, we were a little disappointed. We saw the luminous original and found the evening to be truly inspirational. The current production feels a tad like an outstanding road company with a star performance at the center, but the evening’s message of love, redemption and forgiveness is not diluted. The Color Purple is still thrilling entertainment and a life affirming rarity.
By Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
Fantasia debuted in The Color Purple on April 10, 2007 the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street, for an engagement through January 6, 2008. Order tickets online HYPERLINK "http://www.Telecharge.com" www.Telecharge.com /212-239-6200 or visit the box office.