One Woman's Journey
By R. J. Donovan
"Dear God, I am a fourteen year old girl . . ."
It starts with a prayer, and the hope that God is listening. And so begins "The Color Purple" at The Wang Theatre.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-wining novel by Alice Walker and the subsequent film by Steven Spielberg, the musical tells the tale of a young black woman who finds the strength to triumph over almost overwhelming adversity. Music and lyrics are by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, with a book adapted for the stage by Marsha Norman. As on Broadway, Gary Griffin directs.
Set in rural Georgia in 1909, this is a show where the men have all the power, but the women have the inner strength to journey on. And they do. Joyously.
As far as the casting of the show is concerned, surely some higher power was indeed listening, because the wonder of the production is Kenita K. Miller (far left with LaToya London) as Celie, the waif resigned to live her life lost in a world out of her control. (This is the role that was played by Whoopie Goldberg in the film.) Weighted down by hard labor, beatings and two pregnancies by her own stepfather, Celie is unwanted and unloved. And only 14.
In a touchingly understated performance, Ms. Miller takes the character through a wonderfully stirring arc. Starting out as a downtrodden girl who's more of a possession than a person, she rises to become a solid individual, surrounded by love and radiating it right back at everyone with whom she comes in contact. This is a girl who could easily hate the world for her place in it, yet she comes to represent the best in humanity. Ms. Miller delivers a performance that tells you all of that and more in the most simple and emotional of terms as her character travels from young girl to mature adult (at left).
Ms. Miller played Celie on Broadway, and the company at the Wang is blessed to have two additional members of the Broadway company in its ranks. Felicia P. Fields returns to the role of Sofia, which she created on Broadway (and for which she received a Tony nomination). As understated as Ms. Miller is, Ms. Fields is just the opposite. Big and brassy and bold and bossy, she gives Sofia the larger-than-life presence the character needs. With one withering look, she had the audience eating out of her hand.
Also from the Broadway company is Angela Robinson as the glamorous and free-spirited entertainer, Shug Avery, who comes to shelter Celie while opening new doors for her.
The company is rounded out by Rufus Bonds, Jr. as the abusive Mister, LaToya London as Celie's sister Nettie, and Brandon Victor Dixon as Harpo, husband to Sofia. Special mention also has to go to the wonderful Greek Chorus, of sorts -- three fussy church ladies who constantly comment and gossip and judge every little happening in town -- played by Lynette DuPree, Virginia Ann Woodruff and Kimberly Ann Harris (at left). They are delicious.
While the performances are nothing but first rate, the production itself has a few minor issues. Early in the show there are couple of time shifts in the story that aren't well defined. One moment we're "here," and the next, we've jumped ahead a few years without any notable explanation or staging. Not a glaring thing, but as you're trying to figure it out, it does pull you away from the story for a moment, which is never a good thing.
The challenge of the sound system also made it difficult to grasp the show's opening number. You got the general idea of what was going on through the sheer exuberance of the company, but the lyrics were lost on anyone who wasn't already familiar with them.
The opening of the second act offers an intriguing concept that transports Celie, in her mind, to Africa to see her sister. The staging is colorful and interesting, but it goes on too long. And when Sofia's troubles are blended into it, it becomes awkward.
Finally, a very cute song between Sofia and Harpo late in the second act comes along, well, too late in the second act. The show has taken a more serious, mature tone by that point and the comic turn breaks the mood everyone has worked hard to create. It's as if the composers wrote it, loved it and just needed a place to put it.
That said, the high points of the show include the male chorus in "Brown Betty," Sofia's defiant "Hell No!," Shug's incredibly touching "Too Beautiful For Words" and the Celie-Shug duet that ends the first act, "What About Love." Again Ms. Miller shows her enormous range by going from the tender "Somebody Gonna Love You" early in the evening to the vibrant showstopping finale, "I'm Here."
As the curtain falls, Celie has made a life for herself, ridden out the bad times, celebrated the good, and become a proud woman.
While the evening began with a prayer of question, it ends with a prayer of thanks. And both the show and that final prayer conclude with the simple word, Amen.
"The Color Purple" is at Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theatre through June 28. For information, call 866-348-9738.
-- Production Photos: Paul Kolnik
-- OnStage Boston
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