Theater Review - Purple reign

Alliance meets challenge of Alice Walker’s classic

The Color Purple begins with virtually no colors in its palette. The new musical, based on Alice Walker’s novel, opens on 14-year-old, pregnant Celie (Tatiana McConnico) crying “Dear God” over her mother’s coffin. The subsequent funeral features a set and costumes in black, white and shades of gray, like the American South’s answer to a Dickensian slum.

The monochromatic overture suits the severity of Walker’s novel, particularly the bleak opening section. When Steven Spielberg released his film adaptation almost 20 years ago, the movie’s lavish, idyllic beauty was at odds with the story’s slowly lifting gloom. The Alliance Theatre’s Broadway-bound production resists making the production too pretty. In fact, the show starts with nearly a half-hour of unremitting suffering that threatens to become the most depressing musical ever made.

Fortunately, spirits rise in The Color Purple, which builds to moments of reconciliation and empowerment that span the emotional spectrum. Walker’s knotty plot and spare prose ignore the rulebook for musical theater and give the Alliance show a unique foundation as well as an unstable rickety frame. For its world premiere, The Color Purple proves a bold, complex work that’s not 100 percent comfortable on the stage.

La Chanze plays grown-up Celie, who survives a childhood marked by rape, pregnancy and the mysterious loss of her newborn children. Her father marries Celie off to the equally abusive farmer known as “Mister” (Kingsley Leggs), who treats her like a slave. When Celie recognizes one of her own children in the arms of a preacher’s wife, she expresses her maternal ache in the song “She Be Mine.” Bill Hatcher’s guitar gives the number the haunting strains of Delta blues, which superbly evoke the turn-of-the-century South.

Sister Nettie (Saycon Sengbloh) provides Celie’s sole bright spot, but Mister drives her away for resisting his “seduction.” Bereft and facing a life of drudgery, Celie sings with fury against an indifferent God. Few musicals dare to touch on such stark material.

Celie finds answers to her prayers in female role models like Sofia (Felicia P. Fields), the combative, hard-charging wife of Mister’s son, Harpo (Brandon Victor Dixon). Whimsical music accompanies Sofia’s first appearance, with Fields, under Gary Griffin’s direction, at times overplaying her humor. But as time passes, her contentious marriage to Harpo finds a comfortable groove, as conveyed by the amusing duet “Is There Anything I Can Do for You?” in which domestic pique turns to passion.

Mister’s longtime mistress Shug Avery (Adriane Lenox) gives Celie even more inspiration. When Mister shelters the burnt-out juke-joint singer under his roof, Shug initially treats Celie as callously as everyone else. But Shug soon recognizes the other woman’s inner beauty, just as Celie feels her first romantic stirrings. Shug also provides the play’s musical engine: The ensemble gradually joins in for the spirited “Shug Avery Comin’ to Town,” and Shug gives a bawdy performance of “Push Da Button.” After Shug finds Nettie’s long-hidden letters to Celie, Act Two begins with a thrilling African sequence, replete with songs and dances based on tribal traditions.

With music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, and book by Marsha Norman, The Color Purple admirably refuses to oversimplify its characters. Shug may be the play’s artistic, emotional and sexual life force, but she’s also a flawed woman with a self-absorbed streak. And despite Mister’s brutal behavior, there’s something strangely touching in his lifelong, adulterous devotion to Shug. We respond to it partly because so many of Act One’s key relationships take place offstage.

The production unfolds in a multitude of short scenes, with some songs simply providing fragments of exposition. The near-constant, head-spinning set changes are handled with clockwork efficiency, but as the decades pass and the characters evolve, The Color Purple feels a bit frantic.

La Chanze sings with deep emotional investment while never forgetting Celie’s downtrodden, wounded nature. When Celie begins to gain independence and empowerment in Act Two, La Chanze shows Celie gradually open herself to love and confidence. Instead of bursting with Broadway-sized gestures, La Chanze’s insightful underacting seems almost miraculous in such an elaborate musical.

There’s something a little neat and politically correct about Celie’s triumph. When she starts a booming business sewing trousers, the number “In Miss Celie’s Pants” features exuberant costumes and dances that help relieve the pain of Act One. Yet lines like, “Look who’s wearing the pants now!” hit the nail a bit too squarely on the head, and the baggy-clown trousers look too silly and flashy to fit the setting.

The Color Purple ends with a genuinely touching reunion, although some editing and streamlining are called for to resolve its story problems. But the production certainly surpasses Aida, the last Broadway musical to get a ballyhooed, out-of-town try-out at the Alliance. Aida’s straightforward love story and Elton John songs made it a safer box office gamble, but The Color Purple proves the richer experience. La Chanze’s performance raises a monument to the human spirit that’s more lasting than any hydraulic pyramid.