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.
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.
Los Angeles Times photographers document the year in arts and culture.(Los Angeles Times)
When the Mariinsky Ballet performed “Cinderella” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oct. 8, even the wondrous Diana Vishneva as Cinderella couldn’t bring unity to the movement, but she danced with flawless, fearless authority. Read more >>(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins leaves a rehearsal of his play “Appropriate,” opening Oct. 4 at the Mark Taper Forum, to eat first with a reporter, then later with his agent and some unspecified Hollywood people, who presumably hope to lure him away from the field and city where he has experienced meteoric success in the last five years. Read more >>(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Kerstin Anderson takes charge of Maria von Trapp with a spirit so joyful, a physicality so lithe and coltish, and a soprano so flawlessly soaring that only Frau Schraeder, Capt. Von Trapp’s jilted fiancée (Teri Hansen), could possibly resist her charm. Read the Oct. 1 review >>(Los Angeles Times)
Soprano Abigail Fischer performs Oct. 7 in the opera “Songs from the Uproar” at REDCAT in Los Angeles.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Moisés Kaufman’s muscular revival of “Bent,” which played at the Mark Taper Forum, opening on July 26, renders what many had written off as a parochial drama about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany into a gripping tale of love, courage and identity. Read review >>(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Malaviki Sarukkai performing at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on July 19, 2015. Sarukkai is the best-known exponent of South Indian classical dance.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Bramwell Tovey conducts the L.A. Phil with pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Hollywood Bowl on July 14, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Argentine dancer Herman Cornejo performs in the West Coast premiere of “Tango y Yo” as part of the Latin portion of BalletNow.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Jake Shears plays Greta in Martin Sherman’s play “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles through Aug. 23, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Dancers rehearse a one-night-only performance choregraphed by Raiford Rogers, one of L.A.'s most-noted choreographers. This year the dance will be to a new original score by Czech composer Zbynek Mateju.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Oscar-winning actor Ben Kingsley in Los Angeles on July 9, 2015.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Mia Sinclair Jenness, left, Mabel Tyler and Gabby Gutierrez alternate playing the title role in the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre. The three are shown during a day at Santa Monica Pier on June 16, 2015.(Christina House / For The Times)
American Contemporary Ballet Company members Zsolt Banki and Cleo Magill perform a dance routine originally done by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This performance was presented as part of "Music + Dance: L.A.” on Friday, June 19, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Miguel, a Grammy-winning guitarist, producer, singer and lyricist, is photographed in San Pedro on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. His new album "Wildheart,” explores L.A.'s “weird mix of hope and desperation.”(Christina House / For The Times)
Los Angeles-born artist Mark Bradford is photographed in front of “The Next Hot Line.” This piece is part of his show “Scorched Earth,” installed at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, June 11, 2015.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The Los Angeles Opera concluded its season with “The Marriage of Figaro,” with Roberto Tagliavini as Figaro and Pretty Yende as Susanna, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
“Trinket,” a monumental installation by Newark-born, Chicago-based artist William Pope.L, features an American flag that is 16 feet tall and 45 feet long. The work is on display at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA through June 28.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Alex Knox, from left, Carolyn Ratteray, Lynn Milgrim and Paige Lindsey White in “Pygmalion” in spring 2015 at the Pasadena Playhouse.(Mariah Tauger / For The Times)
On March 17, Google celebrated the addition of more than 5,000 images to its Google Street Art project with a launch party at the Container Yard in downtown Los Angeles.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Ric Salinas, left, Herbert Siguenza and Richard Montoya, of the three-man Latino theater group Culture Clash, brought their “Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival” to the Kirk Douglas Theatre to mark the group’s 30th anniversary. The play ran from Feb. 4 through March 1.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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.
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.