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The Fox Theatre, Grand Avenue, Saint Louis

The Color Purple

Ran March 20 – April 1, 2018

Reviewed by Joan Leyden

A TRIUMPH OF THE SPIRIT!

To those who are unfamiliar with Alice Walker’s searing novel The Color Purple and the successful film of the same name, this pared-down musical version, set in rural Georgia in the early nineteen-hundreds, gives us as its heroine, Celie, a 14-year-old black girl, who has been repeatedly raped by her father, Alfonso. She has just given birth to their second child, which he gives away. He then separates her from the one person she loves, her sister Nettie. Four years later he forces her to marry a local farmer, Mister, who continues to use and brutalize her. The girl must endure not only the emotional abuse this hardened man imposes on her, but a life of back-breaking physical labor.

The other women in this degraded backwoods community react in a variety of ways to the oppression of their men: the more spirited, like Sofia, running off; the churchwomen in stoic denial; and Celie, who turns to God. Marriage vows count for little, and many of the women are treated little better than slaves.

But as time passes, Celie’s belief in an unheeding god who permits such suffering begins to waiver. When her husband’s longtime lover, the colorful Shug Avery, appears in town, Celie is challenged by Shug’s independence, her earthy sexuality and her courage. The singer is a revelation to Celie, and Celie’s grace is a revelation to Shug. Sensing her quality, she finds the abused girl “too beautiful for words.” This is the main event of a very dark first act, the beginning of hope for Celie. The relationship, with its exploration of trust and tenderness between the two women, marks the reclamation of Celie.

Twelve years later, Shug invites the still-married, abused Celie to Memphis to live with her. Celie at last confronts Mister and heads off to Memphis where she develops a business as a seamstress/designer. But life with Shug presents its own problems, and Shug is soon enamored of a young flute player in her band. She suggests to Celie that she’d like to take a six-month hiatus from their relationship so that she can have a last fling with him. Celie is devastated, but meanwhile has learned that her sister Nettie and her own two children are alive, living in a refugee camp in Africa. Celie emerges from her loss of Shug’s support stronger and more independent, more hopeful, her faith in God intact. Nettie does return with the children with the combined help of a somewhat reformed Mister and Shug.

The plot, of course, includes developments in the lives of the other characters, but the focus of the piece is almost exclusively on Celie and the attempts of the female characters’ attempts to find dignity in their lives.

The talented supporting cast give their all to this story, and bring real spirit to their telling of it. Adrianna Hicks in wonderful as Celie, bringing pathos and drama to her portrayal. Her vulnerability in the song What About Love and her electrifying rendition of her final emancipation in I’m Here are worth the price of admission. The gifted Carla R. Stewart embodies Shug Avery’s vital passion for life, and the solos and duets of these two women are the highlights of the evening. Delivering a strong, funny Sofia, Carrie Compere earns a show-stopping moment in Hell No and N’Jameh Camara is lovely as Nettie, as is her voice. Much of the singing is belted, both by the male and female characters, a style that suits the harsh material, but is hard to listen to for any length of time.

In this 2015 revival we are presented with the bare bones of the original musical, with acting styles that offer little opportunity for nuance; a remarkably drab unit set; and a sculptural back piece that provides little help in recognizing the changing locales. Director John Doyle is credited with this approach and with the design of the set (and I assume, of the rather clumsy props). Marsha Norman’s treatment of the book does little more than lend a framework for the songs, which carry most of the plot. Let it be suggested here that ideally this story might have been better treated as an opera, given the dark nature of the story with its deeply disturbing themes (the brutalization of women and its echoes of slavery and racism).

A second disadvantage for the cast at The Fox is its 4,500-seat capacity, for what is essentially a very personal story. Certainly a challenge.

Music credits for composer/lyricist go to three artists, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, which may account for some of the cobbled-together feeling of the whole and its unevenness of tone. The musical styles and influences include blues, jazz, revival, swing, Broadway show tunes, and African chant. On reflection, I found the lyrics generally better than the music, with the exception of the key songs. The almost colorless costume design is credited to Ann Hould-Ward and Jane Cox’s lighting design offered many beautiful effects.

The stirring and inspirational finale features a reprise of The Color Purple and the cast is superb in its rendition, which was fully appreciated by the audience.

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