What a difference a director makes.
Having seen the original Broadway staging of "The Color Purple" in New York and then the touring production at the Ahmanson Theatre, I was in no rush to revisit a show I found sentimental and overstuffed. But I'd be happy to see this transformative revival that originated at London's Menier Chocolate Factory at least a dozen more times.
John Doyle, the British director who's had great success in reinventing Stephen Sondheim musicals, cracked the problem of "The Color Purple" by treating the show more like a church service than a traditional book musical.
The production, which opened Thursday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, relies to an extent on the audience having some understanding of the basic story, if not from Alice Walker's popular novel or Steven Spielberg's blockbuster film then perhaps from a recent encounter with the musical. "The Color Purple" ended its Broadway run in 2008, and the show has been cropping up all over the country in various incarnations, including an acclaimed 2012 production at Los Angeles' intimate Celebration Theatre.
Rather than rehashing the drama, Doyle has reconceived "The Color Purple" as a communal meditation on a modern American myth. The result — and it wouldn't surprise me if the uninitiated feel this way as well — is a spiritually transcendent theatricalization of the tale that had me silently shouting "hallelujah" and "amen."
Doyle is aided by a glorious female cast. Jennifer Hudson, who plays Shug Avery, has been brought in for the Broadway production for box office mojo. But luscious as her singing and stage presence are, she's not the star here.
Front and center is the London-trained Cynthia Erivo as Celie, reprising her performance from the touted Menier Chocolate Factory production. Relatively unheralded, she brings stark humanity — and an astonishing voice — to the role of the abused young woman dismissed as ugly and worthless who somehow manages to persevere long enough to have her radiant light recognized.
It's hard to imagine that Erivo's heart-stirring Broadway debut, a portrayal that derives enormous power from humility, won't be recognized once award season arrives. She doesn't eclipse the work of LaChanze, who won a Tony for her magnificent performance as Celie in the original Broadway production (and is currently lighting up "If/Then" at the Hollywood Pantages), but she stands beside her, a sister in greatness.
There's nothing glamorous or enviable about this character, and Erivo does nothing to soften the rawness of the situation. Celie is raped by the man she believes is her Pa (Kevyn Morrow). After cruelly taking her second baby away, he forces her to marry Mister (Isaiah Johnson), a brute who'd rather be with her sister, Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango), whose subsequent flight to Africa only compounds Celie's isolation.
With her roughly cropped hair and weary eyes, Erivo's Celie looks as though she'd like to erase herself. Her face seems washed out by unnoticed tears, but her goodness has the clarity of fresh water. She accepts her lot in the hope that, if she can't improve her circumstances, perhaps she can outlast the misery.
The women are the backbone of "The Color Purple," and the actresses here find common cause. Danielle Brooks' Sofia, the wife of Mister's son, Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe), is a pillar of strength and dignity, never more so than when she is under attack. Kalukango's Nettie conceals a steely loyalty beneath her bright, smiling patience.
Before her glamorous transformation into an Oscar- and Grammy-winning star, Hudson might have been cast as Sofia, the role in which Oprah Winfrey, a producer of this Broadway show, made her film debut. She may not be a natural Shug, but she deepens the characterization of this wild chanteuse. More than a honky-tonk vixen, she's a female comrade in joy and suffering.
Celie falls in love with Shug, who awakens in her the gift of sensual desire. Shug loves her back, though not to the extent Celie longs for. In their duet "What About Love?" Erivo and Hudson realize in song what their characters can only tentatively achieve in life: perfect harmony.
Marsha Norman's book, perhaps too beholden to Walker's novel, cries out for radical distillation. It seems inappropriate to complain about the litany of misfortunes that rain down on poor Celie, given what African Americans experienced in the Jim Crow South. But art differs from history. Its function is to uncover the philosophical meaning in the barrage of data.
Doyle's inspiration is to approach Celie's story as an allegory. By concentrating on the outline and condensing the details, he throws into relief the religious dimension of her Job-like saga.
Doyle's signature, as perfected in his Broadway revivals of "Sweeney Todd" and "Company," has been to arm his cast with musical instruments and have them double as the orchestra. In this way he has more deeply connected Sondheim's score to the respective books of their musicals.
The musicians are out of sight in "The Color Purple," which unfolds on a spare set that Doyle himself designed with his usual flair for nimble minimalism. But the focus is squarely on the singing. Nothing is allowed to obstruct our experience of the performers' voices — and what a heavenly constellation of talent has been assembled to draw out every color in the score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.
Through this directorial legerdemain the drama achieves the force and fluidity of a Gospel service. A tale that was once implausible in its stringing together of coincidences no longer seems subject to the same mundane rules of realistic storytelling. The production operates in a higher altitude. Emotion soars as despair and despondency give way to acceptance and forgiveness.
The musical's compassionate embrace extends to Johnson's Mister and Scatliffe's Harpo. No one is left out of the fold. The cast melds with the audience into a congregation
Erivo, plainly costumed by Ann Hould-Ward, basks in a divine light whenever she opens her mouth to sing. Her songs are a form of prayer. Sorrow, invoking faith, transmutes into beauty, as in "Somebody Gonna Love You," the song she coos to her baby boy before he's snatched by her Pa. I haven't been to a church service in some time, but my spirit was profoundly moved watching Celie overcome her terrible hardships.
"The Color Purple," I'm overjoyed to report, has finally found the freedom it needed to attain sublimity.