by Mark G. Auerbach
If you’re feeling the earth move in Hartford/Springfield, this week, it’s caused by the thunderous applause that interrupts The Color Purple performance multiple times at The Bushnell through Sunday. The recent Broadway revival of The Color Purple re-imagined by John Doyle, is an explosive revision of the original musical, inspired by the award-winning book and film.
The Color Purple is based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, which won The Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and was later adapted as a motion picture in 1985 by Steven Spielberg. In 2004, the musical was workshopped in Atlanta, and Oprah Winfrey, a star of the film, championed the effort to move the musical to Broadway, where it opened the following year. After a successful Broadway run and national tour, innovative director John Doyle revamped the work for a London production in 2013, which made its way back to Broadway, and won The Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. This production closed earlier this year and hit the road for a national tour, which includes the Bushnell engagement through December 10..
Doyle, best known for his imaginative productions of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Company, where he had the actors doubling as musicians, has directed and designed the revival. He stripped the original Broadway musical down to its bare essentials, a potent book by Marsha Norman, and an evocative score fusing Broadway with R&B, gospel, and Afro-Caribbean rhythms by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. He emphasized the stories of three strong women in rural Georgia from 1909-1949. Celie, played to tour-de-force perfection by Adrianna Hicks, is a bused by a series of men, but rises to discover her self-worth. Shug Avery, given a stunning performance by Carla R. Stewart, is a spirited singer who helps Celie unlock her potential. Sofia, played by Carrie Compere in the role originated by Oprah in the film, is a strong and determined woman beaten down in her attempt to survive. Their stories interweave in an evening punctuated by several showstoppers, the throbbing “Push da Button” for Shug; “What About Love”, a tender duet for Celie and Shug, and “I’m Here”, Celie’s anthem of survival.
All of the performances are solid. If you saw Ragtime at Barrington Stage this summer, you’ll notice Darnell Abraham, who played Coalhouse Walker, in The Color Purple ensemble.
Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes and Jane Cox’s lighting are recreations of their work for the Broadway revival.
When I saw The Color Purple on Broadway a decade ago, I was underwhelmed by the show, where for me, the message was wrapped up in spectacle. John Doyle’s pared-down revival really works for me–a story with a powerful message, told with the best essence of storytelling, and given visionary staging and fine performances.
The Bushnell presents The Color Purple. Book by Marsha Norman. Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. Based on the novel by Alice Walker and the Warner Brothers/Amblin Entertainment Motion Picture. Scenic design by John Doyle. Costume design by Ann Hould-Ward. Lighting design by Jane Cox. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Hair design by Charles G. LaPointe. Music direction by Darryl Archibald Direction by John Doyle.Cast: Through December 10 at The Bushnell, Hartford, CT. 860-987-5900 or www.bushnell.org.
Mark G. Auerbach studied theatre at American University and the Yale School of Drama. He’s worked for arts organizations and reported on theatre for newspapers and radio. Mark produces and hosts ArtsBeat Radio on 89.5fm/WSKB Radio.