The 2017-18 North American tour of the Tony Award®-winning 2015 Broadway Revival of The Color Purple: The Musical opened to a sell-out crowd last night at the Durham Performing Arts Center, and the cast cracked the walls with their stellar performances. It’s a bonafide smash hit and a revival that’s almost better than the original!
“Revival” is a good word for this show, because the opening number reveals a stage with minimal setting: three brass-colored columns lined with chairs and a multilevel stage where characters can travel from one level to the other, depending on their part in the scene. The setting resembles a church and is complemented by the company’s ability to make every song that they sing feel like they’ve taken the words and created a rousing rendition to resemble the best of the best hymns, spirituals, and gospel music (combined with a little jazz and blues along the way). The company fills the stage, the story begins, and we are drawn in by the characters who need nothing but their voices to tell 1983 Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker’s amazing tale.
The story is one that resonates because of its relevance to one of today’s biggest hot-button issues: violence against women. One might argue that’s what classic fiction does — it speaks to reality and gives us intimate stories of what people endure on a daily basis. Walker’s tale of Celie Harris Johnson (played by Adrianna Hicks) and Nettie Harris (N’Jameh Camara), sisters who deal with horrendous abuse, both physical and sexual, is a powerful one, written with beautiful character arcs and a positive and healing resolution.
The stage musical embodies the story’s structure and loses none of the women’s strength. The only difference is the music. And, oh, what music it is!
Some of the songs are simple, speaking to the childhood all kids should be able to enjoy innocently. “Huckleberry Pie,” sung sweetly and lovingly by Hicks and Camara, lays the foundation for that childhood. When all the adults around them implode and use the two girls for their own benefit (whether it’s to scrub floors or carry their daddy’s babies), the sisters have each other. Their love is pure.
Celie is tormented by her father-abuser in so many ways that they’re impossible to enumerate but, perhaps, the one that hurts her most is having her children taken away from her. Those moments dig into the audience’s heart, and those moments also develop into some of the biggest onstage moments for the fabulous Adrianna Hicks, who’s capable of going from a hunchbacked, sheepish girl who does what she’s told, but gets in her digs with words, to a strutting, strong women with a talent for sewing women into the safety of pants.
When Celie and Nettie are separated, Pa-father-abuser (J.D. Webster), commits the final sin, convincing her that her sister is gone, that she doesn’t care, and that Celie is ugly. He thinks he’s nailed the lid on the coffin when he gives Celie away to Mister (Gavin Gregory), who originally wanted Nettie for his bride.
But Celie struggles along, gaining strength and learning about love from the other women in her life: Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart) and Sofia (Carrie Compere). Shug, the loose woman with the gritty, soulful voice, teaches Celie about love when she sings the stirring ballad “Too Beautiful for Words,” and Sofia shows Celie how to respond when she doesn’t want to do something with the bawdy call for rebellion, “Hell No!”
The musical abounds with many moments that take your breath away, either with laughter or pain. “Big Dog” (led by Gregory) allows the men a chance to master the stage in a loud, raucous, muscle-filled anthem, while “Push Da Button” (led by Stewart) is another big song that celebrates the naturalness of sexuality. “What About Love?”, a plaintive song shared between Shug (Stewart) and Celie (Hicks) questions the lack of tenderness and trust in the relationships that they’ve had and wonders whether that kind of relationship will be possible.
The Color Purple at DPAC shows the full range of characters, even offering one who’s the most distasteful (Mister) and allowing him the redemption that most men who do what he’s done don’t get. Gavin Gregory handles the shift in his personality with body language that moves from the large, take-over-the-whole-stage man to collapsing himself around the hat he holds in his hand. His voice, powerful and tender, is a baritone that creeps into every nook and cranny in the house.
To say that each member of the cast sings well is a gross understatement. This cast takes you to church! Adrianna Hicks’ gradually builds up to her biggest moment on stage, singing “I’m Here.” She’s determined at that point to go on, keeping the faith when it seems almost impossible, knowing her sister is out there somewhere, and her kids are, too. Her voice gains strength with every phrase and soars to the rafters in DPAC, lifting up everyone in the audience with her. It’s one of those moments during live performances when the hair literally stands up on your arms, your eyes fill with tears, and you know that nothing you’ve ever gone through compares to what she has.
SECOND OPINION: March 28th Burlington, NC Times-News preview by Rachel Teseneer for “Teens & Twenties”: http://teensandtwenties.com/color-purple-star-on-broadway-business-and-brainpower/; March 28th Raleigh, NC WRAL.com preview by Kathy Hanrahan for “What’s on Tap”: http://www.wral.com/-the-color-purple-takes-on-timely-message/17444134/; and March 19th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh BWW Interview with Carla R. Stewart, conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Interview-Carla-R-Stewart-Steps-Into-Shug-Averys-Shoes-In-THE-COLOR-PURPLE-20180319. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the April 3rd Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/04/sympathy-for-the-devil-the-color-purples-gavin-gregory-makes-the-case-for-mister/.)
The Durham Performing Arts Center presents THE COLOR PURPLE at 7:30 p.m. April 4 and 5, 8 p.m. April 6, 2 and 8 p.m. April 7, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. April 8 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.
TICKETS: $51.44-$163.50, plus taxes and fees. Click here for $20-$30 rush tickets and other DPAC Special Offers.
Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or https://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/1073053.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/281-0587, Groups@DPACnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/group-services.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqNDSZs09-CniiEqHJQKTQw.
DPAC‘S 2017-18 “TEN GREAT YEARS” SUNTRUST BROADWAY SERIES: https://www.dpacnc.com/suntrust-broadway-series-2017-18 and https://www.dpacnc.com/news/detail/announcing-suntrust-broadway-at-dpac-2017-2018-season.
THE TOUR: https://colorpurple.com/, https://www.ibdb.com/tour-production/the-color-purple–515750, https://facebook.com/ColorPurpleMusical, https://twitter.com/bwaycolorpurple, and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqNDSZs09-CniiEqHJQKTQw.
TOUR CAST & CREATIVE TEAM: https://colorpurple.com/our-family/.
NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 8 p.m. Saturday, April 7th, performance.
The Color Purple (1982 epistolary novel): http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.com/nge/Article.jsp?path=/Literature/Fiction/Works&id=h-1243 (New Georgia Encyclopedia, compiled by the Georgia Humanities Council) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Color_Purple (Wikipedia).
The Novel: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Alice Walker (Putnam County, GA-born novelist, poet, and political activist): http://www.alicewalkersgarden.com/ (official website), http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/alice-walker-b-1944 (New Georgia Encyclopedia, compiled by the Georgia Humanities Council), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/alice-walker-398542 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Walker (Wikipedia).
The Color Purple (1985 film): http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/71239/The-Color-Purple/ (TCM Movie Database), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088939/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Color_Purple_%28film%29 (Wikipedia).
The Color Purple: The Musical (2005 Broadway musical and 2015 Broadway Revival): https://colorpurple.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/the-color-purple-398534 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Color_Purple_(musical) (Wikipedia).
Study Guide: http://parksquaretheatre.org/wp-content/uploads/TheColorPurple2015.pdf (Park Square Theatre of St. Paul, MN).
Brenda Russell (music and lyrics): http://www.brendarussell.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/brenda-russell-391911 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brenda_Russell (Wikipedia).
Allee Willis (music and lyrics): http://www.alleewillis.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/allee-willis-398541 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allee_Willis (Wikipedia).
Stephen Bray (music and lyrics): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/stephen-bray-90080 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Bray (Wikipedia).
Marsha Norman (book): http://marshanorman.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/marsha-norman-7556 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marsha_Norman (Wikipedia).
Dawn Reno Langley is the award-winning author of The Mourning Parade, as well as other novels, children’s books, nonfiction books, essays, short stories, poems, and articles. She is the creator of The Writer’s Hand Journals and runs workshops on using journals in every walk of life. A Fulbright Scholar, she holds the MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, and the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Union Institute and University. She lives in Durham with her dog, Izzy. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.