Theater Review: THE COLOR PURPLE (National Tour)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 19, 2018

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


After winning a Tony last year for best revival of a musical, Oprah’s once and future movie-turned-musical has finally hit her home town, part of a national tour. As alive as the genre gets and as overwrought as the original Spielberg film, this sprawling saga of life for African-American women in the South — beginning at the dawn of the 20th century — covers forty years (though it seems to happen all at once) as it chronicles the sweet suffering of Celie, an ugly duckling destined for swandom.

Assorted revelations help Celie to stand up, strike back, and curse Mister. Her newborn confidence is inspired by her bisexual lover, the beautiful songstress Shug Avery. Also inspiring Celie are her kindly brother-in-law Harpo, and Harpo’s sassy, brassy wife Sofia. By the end (which peaks with a contrived family reunion), Celie has established a pants store, found self-respect along with religion, and learned to treasure “the color purple” in the fields of Georgia.

Like Les Miz, Marsha Norman’s very rushed dialogue covers a ton of territory, none of it enhanced by pastiche songs that, however familiar, fail to soar beyond their context. Watching The Color Purple is like speed-reading the novel, one showstopping crisis overwhelming the last one. In this melodramatic melange of uplift and downtread, anguish and affirmation, the show does the feeling for us as Celie predictably overcomes obligatory obstacles.

Threatening to be swallowed up by the vast Auditorium Theatre stage in Chicago, John Doyle’s 2013 revival staging is performed against an unchanging backdrop of hanging chairs and distressed barn doors. True to its tale, it’s all so much contagious heartbreak concentrated into traffic control, resolute to let nothing get in the way of the power ballads. So much sincerity aside, it’s still hard to justify the second act’s irrelevant “African Homeland” rip-off of The Lion King. But the dancing, derivative as the score, heats up wonderfully with the jitterbug romp “Miss Celie’s Pants.”

As a showcase for a powerhouse ensemble, The Color Purple boasts phenom Carrie Compere melting down and belting out her defiant “Hell No!” Carla R. Stewart’s salacious Shug Avery is indeed “Too Beautiful for Words” as she raises Celie’s spirits. Gavin Gregory’s Mister incarnates every woman-beating monster who deserved a retroactive order of protection; his rapid redemption is less believable.

Of course the all-suffering soul of the show — given new urgency since the #MeToo movement has “woke” folks up — is pile-driving Adrianna Hicks: Celie’s triumphant “I’m Here” could be heaven’s official audition anthem. She can turn a lyric filled with unearned emotion and gratuitous agony into its exact opposite. It’s a feat that explains just why this show remains so damnably critic-proof.

photos by Matthew Murphy

The Color Purple
national tour
Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy
for tickets, call 800.775.2000 or visit Broadway In Chicago

ends in Chicago on July 29; tour continues through Aug 26, 2018
for dates and cities, visit Color Purple

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