Timing could not be better for a professionally mounted, national tour of The Color Purple: The Musical. Call this a reminder-on-wheels that sexual exploitation is not a Hollywood invention.
Judging by the passionate outpourings of an opening night crowd at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre, there are plenty of untreated wounds out there needing some redress. What better therapy than a return visit to Alice Walker’s 1982 novel about Celie and Nettie, two sisters who live long enough to prevail over the horrendous abuse of a home-grown domestic tyrant?
Strike the above “reminder-on-wheels” comment. For those who have been victimized by an abuser, this revised musical showcase may better be described as a night of rolling thunder.
The original Broadway production of The Color Purple ran from 2005 to 2008, earning 16 Tony nominations, including those for the book by playwright Marsha Norman and the music and lyrics of Brenda Russell, Ailee Willis and Stephen Bray.
This national touring version is Director John Doyle’s own acclaimed “re-imagined” 2013 revival, which took Broadway by storm in 2015 and ran until just this past January.
Doyle takes possession of the novel’s decades-hopping action like a born storyteller. He sets it on a mostly bare stage, Our Town-style, in front of an abstract wall consisting of old shanty timber and stick furniture. That basic backdrop remolds itself in the audience imagination as a poor schoolhouse, a rural church, and the homes and communities of Walker’s vibrant cast of characters.
Adrianna Hicks establishes an immediate emotional connection as Celie, getting her innocent, childlike obedience just right before showing us every stage of growth that allows her to become such a forceful advocate for her own existence.
Hicks’s sweet singing voice is perfect for her understated farewell to her infant son, “Somebody Gonna Love You.” But Hicks holds all the vocal ammunition needed to later bring down the house with her rich, powerhouse solos on “I’m Here” and the moving title song.
Gavin Gregory as Mister personifies all the show’s male villainy with his booming, commanding voice and presence. He is so easy to loathe as a character early on that it becomes a challenge to find anything likable about him. But his character’s searing solo on “Celie’s Curse” in Act Two ranks among the musical stage’s great flash-points for reversing audience sympathy, and Gregory nails it.
This show has more than its share of great roles for women, and the new road production is blessed with talent equal to the challenges. Carrie Compere’s Sofia, N’Jameh Camara’s Nettie, and Erica Durham’s Squeak contribute heaping portions of emotion, pity, sass and comedy to the show’s dramatic bounty.
But it is the other leading female role in the story, Shug Avery, who fulfills a critical function in the story. Director Doyle was indeed blessed to have Carla R. Stewart for the role Jennifer Hudson played in the acclaimed Broadway revival.
Stewart projects all the rock-bottom pain and rock-solid hope of the victimized juke joint chanteuse. She whips up hilarity with the lascivious romp “Push da Button,” then coaxes silent tears with “The Color Purple.”
Others making a valuable impression here are J. Daughtry as Harpo, J. D. Webster as Pa, Jared Dixon as Grady, and the “church lady” trio of Angela Birchett, Bianca Horn and Brit West, who wag their tongues with the best of them.
The live musical direction of Conductor Darryl Archibald provides unerring support to a score as rich in gospel feel as it is in funky rhythms and blues. The Sound Design of Dan Moses Schreier assures good live delivery, with no line of dialogue or lyric lost or buried.
With its superb cast and John Doyle back at the helm of his own staging, this touring production is as close as an audience will get to the milestone Broadway mounting. If you let it get out of town without a visit, color you sorry.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Color Purple: The Musical plays at the Hippodrome Theatre, France-Merrick Performing Arts Center through October 22, 2017 – 12 North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (800) 982-ARTS, or purchase online.