Despite a long, fraught gestation and mixed reviews on Broadway, "The Color Purple" now fully believes in itself. The hesitation and narrative uncertainty visible when the show was in Atlanta and New York have largely disappeared. This vocally rich musical knows it already has won over the hearts of the paying customers who watch Oprah Winfrey, its most visible producer, and those who go to the theater to be moved emotionally and see a stirring, affirmative story of inspiration.
At Thursday night's opening, at least, you'd have to have been made of cast iron to resist the ebullient, emotional winds. And they weren't blowing from Lake Michigan. Just from the back of the stage. With a few additional puffs from the direction of Harpo Studios.
Does this musical evoke all the poetry and complexity of the original source? It does not. Does it fully integrate book, visuals and music into a fully coherent artistic metaphor? It does not, for its strands remain varied, eclectic and, in the weaker early sections of the second act, deeply problematic. And as is well documented by now, the musical often has to race inelegantly to fit Walker's rich and complex narrative into two-and-a-half hours on a stage.
But the show always has had integrity, and these flaws are beginning to matter less and less. That's partly because Gary Griffin's warmhearted production seems to have become more at ease with being, for the most part, a musical-comedy event with digressions into serious themes. Broader in style, the production now is filled with carefully timed laugh-lines and comic takes, and with characters who seem very much aware that they're playing in front of an audience.
The Chicago cast has some veterans of the Broadway production -- including the charismatic Chicagoan Felicia P. Fields, who originated the role of Sofia, and who has deservedly blossomed with this show into a major national star. Laudably, Marsha Norman's book does not run from the novel's sexual complexities or human cruelties. But still, the joy of life now is getting more emphasis than its inevitable pain. Even the heinous Mister, performed in Chicago by the bizarrely cast Rufus Bonds, Jr., now seems more of a lost, always-redeemable, always-theatrical soul than an angry man filled with the genuinely terrifying violence of sexual anger.
Perhaps the comedy is getting a bit too much focus--but this is a musical, after all, and the end of the show still has many people in tears. And, all in all, I'd say that Chicago is getting the best cast of the three productions I've seen and is enjoying the sharpest direction from Griffin.
Often with Broadway musicals, the second person to play a lead role is the best. So it went here.
In New York, original star LaChanze was electric but, to my mind, invulnerable. Jeannette Bayardelle, the new Celie in Chicago (who also played the role in New York before giving way to the famous Fantasia) is a much softer, warmer, more self-effacing actress who doesn't seem to crave the spotlight. She winds up slowly, for sure, but she's a superb, endlessly rich singer with a colossal, Gospel-trained voice that accelerates like a rocket ship. You care deeply about her fate. And she is nothing short of spectacular in the show's big, inspiring ballads.
The happiest surprise of the night, though, is Michelle Williams, who plays Shug Avery. Williams came with at least four potential strikes against her--she's young, already somewhat famous, inexperienced on a theatrical stage, and comes from the pop-music world. None of that gets in her way. As you might expect from the former member of Destiny's Child, she knows her way around the show's mostly bluesy, R&B score, penned by the eclectic team of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. But she's also a far better actor than you might expect. In this show, she looks and feels nothing like a twentysomething pop idol. She has depth, maturity, variety and complexity.
Shug is, in many ways, Walker's most enigmatic and ambiguous character. Williams dances on that knife edge and yet, given the style of the musical, also knows how to channel her energy for the collective good. At "The Color Purple," the musical, that's the most important requirement.
"The Color Purple"
When: Open run of about six months Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St. Running time: 2 hours, 30 mins. Tickets: $28-$85 at 312-902-1400.