The Color Purple: Theater review by Adam Feldman
Seeing The Color Purple on Broadway, a decade after its premiere, is like meeting an old friend who has gotten her life together since the last time you saw her. It seems more confident in itself, surer in its sexuality, and it’s lost a lot of weight; the cast of John Doyle’s revival and the theater in which it’s playing are 40 percent smaller than their 2005 equivalents. But the shrinking of this violet has not lessened its force. On the contrary, Doyle’s production intensifies The Color Purple and brings out its deeper hues. The musical blossoms into a classic.
The Color Purple is not easy to get right. Adapted from Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, the show spans several decades in the early-20th-century life of Celie (the exceptional Cynthia Erivo), who rises through unspeakable adversity to find joy and self-respect. When we meet her, Celie is 14 years old and pregnant for the second time, having been raped by the man she believes to be her father; thinking her children are dead, she is married off to Mister (Isaiah Johnson), who beats her and forbids her from seeing her beloved sister, Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango). In adapting the book for the stage, Marsha Norman skips quickly past this harrowing start—which is understandable, given how it might play in a musical. But without that raw early pain, Celie’s evolution is at risk of seeming less compelling.
In the 2005 production, starring LaChanze, Celie sometimes seemed like a side character in her own story. When Fantasia Barrino took over as Celie, she brought the whole show into her orbit through sensational star power. Erivo doesn’t have to do that, because Doyle’s elegantly minimal production keeps Celie in sharp central focus throughout. She gives a performance of magnetic directness and simplicity, building steadily throughout the show to a breathtaking eleven-o’clock number, “I’m Here.” (You no longer wonder why the score, by a trio of accomplished pop songwriters, doesn’t give Celie a strong establishing number; how can she have an “I Want” song when she doesn’t know what she wants, and may not even think she’s allowed to want anything?)
Celie’s journey has a clearer sense of direction than before, but she doesn’t have to travel it alone. Erivo is supported by a mighty sisterhood of performers: Jennifer Hudson as Shug, Mister’s mistress and Celie’s lover; Danielle Brooks as the seemingly indomitable Sofia; Patrice Covington as the exuberant Squeak; Carrie Compere, Bre Jackson and Rema Webb as a trio of gossipy church ladies. This Color Purple is a celebration of black women, and it fills you with appreciation for the musical’s return. It’s here, and it’s beautiful.—Adam Feldman
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (Broadway). Book by Marsha Norman. Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. Directed by John Doyle. With Cynthia Erivo, Jennifer Hudson, Danielle Brooks. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.
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Cynthia Erivo is the absolute showstopper in this revival of The Color Purple. You can't help but get immersed in her brilliance time and time again. Yes Cynthia, you are certainly here... (this is what you're missing if you haven't see the show yet! https://youtu.be/ei1jsFOO3CQ)
Adam could not have nailed it anymore than when he describes Cynthia Erivo's performance as exceptional. It's fair to say she blows the roof off the house in her 12 o'clock number. This is where you get the saying, showstopper, because the show literally stopped when I attended and people stood and were clapping for over a minute. Look, I'm focusing on Cynthia, but the rest of the cast of this incredible revival deserves some love too. The production is not to be missed for locals and tourists. You won't be disappointed.
Jennifer Hudson is great and all, but the STAR of this show is Danielle Brooks as the strong and bold Sofia. She has an incredible voice and is so enigmatic to watch. The musical itself was beautifully staged, and paints an emotional picture of sisterhood in a time where women had few rights or choices. Cynthia Erevo was also incredible, and my mother and I were cheering these characters on through their journeys. This is the best Broadway show I've seen in the last couple years!
You may have heard that Cynthia Erivo is excellent as Celie in this production. But it must be said again: Erivo is excellent—beyond excellent. As Celie blooms during the show, so too does Erivo, and when she finally explodes, it's like nothing you've seen. She gets great support too from Jennifer Hudson and Danielle Brooks. I saw the original back in 2005. It was fine, but not a patch on this stripped-back update in which a star is born in spectacular fashion.