Review: ‘The Color Purple’ is back, sounding fresher, finer than ever

Director John Doyle strips Alliance-born show down to its powerful and astonishing core


She is raped by her father, separated from her children and her sister, sold off to a man for a cow. She endures a violent, chaotic marriage and falls in love with a woman who leaves her at least twice for a man.

And then Celie has an awakening.

For those who know her from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation starring Whoopi Goldberg, and/or the Broadway musical by playwright Marsha Norman and songwriters Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, it is a familiar transformation.

But when Adrianna Hicks’ Celie declares in her barn-burning 11th-hour anthem of independence, “I’m Here,” that she will no longer buy into the lie that she is ugly and worthless, I hear the voice of Walker’s archetypal character like I’ve never heard it before. This after covering the musical in great detail before, during and after its 2004 Alliance Theatre world premiere.

John Doyle — the Scottish-born, University of Georgia-educated director famous for his spare, elegant productions of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Company” — has stripped the cluttered and convoluted Gothic tale down to its essential self, the self it was always meant to be.

After a triumphant 2015 Broadway makeover that picked up two Tony Awards (best revival, best actress in a musical), this born-again “Color Purple” has returned to its city of origin, and it is a full circle moment that will make your soul weep and your heart dance with joy.

This is not to say the national tour at the Fox Theatre through Sunday is perfect.

The show gets off to a rather slow start, with Celie and Nettie doing a hand-clapping intro called “Huckleberry Pie” (an odd choice of fruit for a story set in Georgia). There are miking issues throughout. And after Act 1, you may hear your inner self wonder if Hicks is not a bit too demure and downtrodden a Celie.

By now, though, you’ve grown to like the monochromatic, minimal visual vocabulary. (Doyle designed the set, and it’s a monumental wall of wood, affixed with enough chairs to fill up an Ionesco farce, with more chairs used as props. Costumes, which shine brighter as the night moves on, are by Ann Hould-Ward.)

You’ve felt the heat and charisma of Shug Avery (the marvelous Carla R. Stewart). And you’ve gotten to know the many figures in this crowded family portrait: Celie’s sister, Nettie (the lovely N’Jameh Camara); Celie’s abusive husband, Mister (Gavin Gregory); Mister’s handsome son, Harpo (J. Daughtry); Harpo’s indomitable wife, Sofia (the terrific Carrie Compere); and Harpo’s clingy, upstart, high-pitched girlfriend, Squeak (Erica Durham).

Just as Doyle dials back the bright lights and expensive spectacle, he scales down some of the outsize personalities, too, making them a little less campy and a lot more real.

Stewart’s Shug is round and voluptuous, the opposite of Celie. And while Sofia originally made her entrance strutting and bouncing like a fat hen, Compere dismisses the caricature to deliver a smartly calibrated performance; her Sofia is modern and self-aware and very funny. (See how she mocks Shug at one key moment involving yet another man and a fine car.)

I’ve never quite felt the erotic tingle and warm embrace of the Celie-Shug romance like I do here, when they sing their duet, “What About Love?” (Nor the lust of Harpo and Sofia, who mount and thrust their way through “Any Little Thing.”) In the creation of the musical vocabulary, as with the other elements, the trio of writers sampled freely across genres, evincing a tapestry of gospel, blues, work songs, children’s ditties, jazz and ragtime. But what once sounded a little incohesive and showoff-y now feels newly minted and organic.

At any second in time, “The Color Purple” can be a deeply affecting story of deliverance from tyranny and evil. Now, in this #me-too moment, when women are coming out into the open to say: “Enough. We won’t take this anymore,” its message is more astonishing and vital than ever. The mirror it holds in front of us is mighty, and it is telling.

Celie’s powerhouse belting of “I’m Here” is not only a musical-theater number to rival Effie White’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” from “Dreamgirls,” but also an ageless credo of self-acceptance, healing, counting one’s blessings, and having the courage to embrace love in its many guises, even when it scares us to death.

As she puts it: “But most of all I’m thankful for loving who I really am. I’m beautiful. Yes, I’m beautiful. And I’m here.”

THEATER REVIEW

“The Color Purple”

Through Oct. 29. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Through Sunday. $33.50-$153.50. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org.

Bottom line: Never looked or sounded better.

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