Friday, November 07, 2008

The Color Purple

Standing outside the Sacramento Community Center Theater Wednesday evening, I heard many people commenting on the irony of seeing 'The Color Purple' - a musical with an African-American cast, which deals with subjects that include lesbianism - on the day after we elected the country's first African-American president ... and voted to ban gay marriage in California.

This first North American touring production of 'The Color Purple' is directed by Gary Griffin, with exuberant choreography by Donald Byrd.

This musical adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the 1985 film, which collected numerous Academy Award nominations, including those for stars Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey. (It won none.)

The stage production - adapted by Pulitzer and Tony Award winner Marsha Norman, with music and lyrics by Grammy Award winners Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray - was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including best musical, when it opened on Broadway in 2006.

The story highlights the resilience of Southern black women, as they deal with the harshest of circumstances and the power of sisterhood, to help them cope with the darkest of times.

The heroine of the story is Celie (Jeannette Bayardel), 14 years old as the show begins, whose suffering over the next several decades surely rivals Job's. Twice impregnated with her father's child and forced to watch her father 'get rid' of her babies, she subsequently is given to an abusive man (Rufus Bonds Jr.) who doesn't want her because she's ugly, but who needs someone to take care of him and his children.

Celie remains with him for years but calls him 'Mister,' because he never even tells her his name.

Bayardel, an actress with a powerful set of lungs, gives a memorable performance as the beaten but never broken Celie, whose innocence and goodness make her character so compelling. Her 'I'm Here' brought down the house Wednesday evening, and is worth the price of admission alone.

Celie's one tie to everything good in her life is her sister, Nettie (LaToya London), with whom she is seen at the start of the show, during a moment of innocent play. But after Nettie spurns his advances, Mister forbids communication between the two girls; as Celie goes through her life, she doesn't know whether her sister is alive or dead.

The show's large cast includes many memorable characters, notably Felicia P. Fields in a the show-stopping performance as Sophia, the feisty wife of Mister's son, Harpo (Stu James). Sophia has an indomitable spirit, unbroken despite a brutal beating that leaves her physically and mentally compromised.

Celie's ultimate path away from her abusive life with Mister comes in the form of Shug Avery (Angela Robinson), with whom he has been in love for years. Shug makes Celie believe that she's a beautiful person. Shug helps her re-connect with her beloved Nettie.

And Shug opens Celie's eyes to the beauty of physical love.

'The Color Purple' spans 40 years, and at times has the feel of a series of vignettes that rush by so quickly, we don't have the opportunity to place them in any sort of timeline. The play suffers from the loss of Walker's poignant prose, although the developers worked hard to preserve the book's essence.

The music is vibrant, but the Community Center Theater's horrible acoustics make it virtually impossible to understand most of the lyrics. No song is truly memorable, although all of them work together as part of the whole. Cute numbers like 'Push da Button' and 'Miss Celie's Pants' are made more memorable by the choreography.

A long African sequence in the second act is well done, even if it does smack a bit of 'The Lion King.'

Actually, the second act in general is tighter and more enjoyable. A woman sitting next to me expressed, at the end of the overly long first act, pretty much what I was feeling: 'This is really good, but I'm having a hard time staying awake.'

But by the end of 'The Color Purple,' the abused little girl has become a self-assured, self-sufficient matriarch who is comfortable in her own skin. Truly, the resilience of the human spirit is wonderful to behold.

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