Here is one of the great triumphal surprises in a Broadway season that has had its share of them: A revival of The Color Purple that lifts an already formidable musical into greatness just seven years after its initial run closed. Propelled by a pair of knockout performances from Jennifer Hudson and Cynthia Erivo, both making their Broadway debuts, this transfer from London’s Menier Chocolate Factory takes a minimalist visual approach to a story that sprawls across decades and continents, training the focus firmly on the twists and turns of Alice Walker’s highly populated, Brontë-worthy tale of a Southern black girl who survives poverty, rape and deprivation before finding love and accomplishment in womanhood.
Erivo, a UK musical theater and contemporary opera prodigy, plays Celie, a teenage girl living in rural Georgia in 1909 who has borne two children by Pa (Kevyn Morrow), the man she believes to be her father. When the cruel land owner known as Mister (Isaiah Johnson) comes to court Celie’s pretty sister Nettie (Joaquin Kalukango), Pa convinces him to take Celie instead, throwing in a cow to seal the deal. As Nettie grows up and joins a minister, his wife and children as missionaries in Africa, Celie endures Mister’s abuses, while his son Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe) marries Celie’s friend, the strong-willed Sofia (Orange Is The New Black‘s Danielle Brooks), whose declaration of independence, “Hell No!” is an Act I highlight.
Mister has a weakness for one woman: the sexy saloon singer Shug Avery (Dreamgirls film star Hudson) who blows into town only to become smitten with Celie (the ballad “Too Beautiful For Words,” followed by the delightfully raunchy “Push Da Button” establish Hudson as the show’s dominant star right up to the first act curtain). Shug introduces Celie not only to the idea of a better world beyond the constraints of Mister’s demands, but also to the pleasures of the flesh. Yearning for her sister, Celie learns from Shug that Mister has hidden Nettie’s letters, and that her love is returned. Celie and Shug’s duet “What About Love?” is a revelation — not because it’s such a great song, but because it offers the two leads interwoven roof-raising phrases that send us to intermission on a rare Broadway high (and make it clear from then on that the show belongs fully to both of its marquee stars).
Marsha Norman’s book cunningly trims the story to essentials, and the songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray get the job done, covering the range from rousing dances to torchy ballads and comic numbers. What sets the production so strikingly apart from the original is director John Doyle’s spartan approach to the physical setting, which he also designed: a slatted wooden wall with bentwood chairs placed here and there, and no more.
With Ann Hould-Ward’s beautiful clothes and Jane Cox’ now dappling, now moody lights, the effect is simplicity itself, while the impact is larger-than-life: These people blossom fully. I’m not always a fan of Doyle’s approach but here — as in his production of the flawed but compelling The Visit earlier this season — he shows a mastery of character revealed. And so in the best show-biz sense, The Color Purple is more than the sum of its considerable parts. It’s a fine old-fashioned celebration of endurance, grace and goodness, given a powerful African-American depth. If you can’t cherish those by the time Celie’s life has come rivetingly full circle, you have an impervious heart indeed.