Review: ‘The Color Purple’ at the Forrest Theatre

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It may take place in rural Georgia circa 1909, but because of today’s headlines about the mistreatment of women, The Color Purple is more relevant than ever. The tour of the recent Broadway hit (winner of the Tony Award for Best Revival) has arrived at the Forrest Theatre for a short run that ends this Sunday.

Adrianna Hicks and N'Jameh Camara. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Adrianna Hicks and N’Jameh Camara. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The heroine, Celie (Adrianna Hicks), is sexually brutalized and raped by her father and her arranged-marriage husband, who use her as a full-time servant and slave. Since this has been occurring since Celie was a tiny child, she knows no other world and copes by writing letters to God. As this uplifting musical unfolds, she meets Sofia (Carrie Compere), who refuses to tolerate any abuse from men. Then she meets the famed blues singer Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart), a woman whose sexual power allows her some degree of control in this male-dominated world. Can Celie grow to love her fellow man and realize her human potential?

Marsha Norman’s book tells the story but is, unsurprisingly, a simplified version of Alice Walker’s powerful and complex novel. The score, with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Alee Willis and Stephen Bray, is solid but not terribly memorable. It features down-home church music (“Mysterious Ways”), funky blues (“Push da Button”), a touch of Africa (“African Homeland”), and one memorable ballad (“Too Beautiful for Words”). The cast delivers mightily with powerful singing voices and striking musical stylization. The lyrics are sometimes hard to follow with only about 70 percent of the words making it through the vast reaches of the Forrest Theatre. Dan Moses Shreier’s sound design is unsubtle and loud, but gets the job done. Joseph Joubert’s xylophone-heavy orchestrations are continually fascinating.

The original 2005 Broadway production was a financial success, aided largely by the star performances of LaChanze and Fantasia; it was generally agreed at the time that The Color Purple was not a first-rate work. That opinion was reversed with the 2015 Broadway revival, directed in an abridged, stripped-down style by John Doyle. Newcomer Cynthia Erivo and film actress Jennifer Hudson provided the star power for this highly-praised rendition (which inspired the current tour). Doyle designed the set, a group of simple platforms backed by a giant wooden wall, with chairs suspended from it. The chairs are moved to indicate the scenes while Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes provide a bit of color and historical perspective. Jane Cox’s lighting is similarly downplayed but effective. The staging resembles Doyle’s less-than-memorable productions of Peter Grimes and Allegro, which were essentially “stand-stage-center and sing” oratorios.

This concept will work brilliantly if one can people the stage with leading actors who can bring a grounded, force-of-nature intensity to the roles. The performers in the tour are fine musical theater specialists and many have Broadway experience. But while they sing their roles superbly, they are not able to connect the dots between the songs, which would help us understand why the characters act as they do. For example, Gavin Gregory is fearsomely effective as Celie’s bullwhip-wielding husband, but is unable to convince in his transformation into a “nice guy.”

While it’s far from perfect, fans of the book, film and musical will find much to enjoy here. It would be hard to find a stronger group of dazzling voices in the Philadelphia area.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Adrianna Hicks and Company. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Adrianna Hicks and Company. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The Color Purple plays through December 17, 2017 at Broadway Philadelphia, performing at the Forrest Theatre – 1114 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call Telecharge at (800) 447-7400, or purchase them online.

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Neal Newman
Over the past 40 years, Neal Newman has directed extensively in classical, Shakespeare, modern theater, musicals, and opera. He trained as an actor at California State University, and trained in Shakespeare at ACT of San Francisco. He trained as a director at Carnegie Mellon, and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. He directed many Off-Broadway productions in New York, ran a summer stock company, and directed five seasons of Shakespeare in the Park in Philadelphia, and many opera and Gilbert & Sullivan productions. He was a New York Critic for Show Business Magazine for 7 years, and has written for many local papers and websites. He is co author of 'GOLDILOCKS AND THE DOWN HOME BEARS' presented at Steel River Playhouse, and will soon present a reading of the new musical 'LITTLE PRINCESS.'