Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Color Purple (The SOB Revisit)

The Color Purple (The SOB Revisit) - Broadway Theatre, New York, NY

*** (out of ****)

When I revisited The Color Purple again last month, I found myself eventually enjoying the performance -- despite all of the pesky problems I recalled from when I first saw the musical shortly after it opened in December 2005 that were still readily apparent.

Don’t get me wrong, by the time the show soars (and it does so beautifully) to its tear-inducing, breathtaking climax, all those issues could be easily forgotten. Yet they are far from inconsequential problems all the same.

Despite those tribulations, it bears noting that the acting and singing are superb throughout. Even though you-know-who was not there the night I was, the cast is uniformly excellent, headed by understudy Saycon Sengbloh (Celie) and featuring such standouts at Elisabeth Withers as Shug Avery (yes! she’s still in the show), NaTasha Yvette Williams as the courageous larger than life Sophie who isn’t afraid to say no, and certainly Alton Fitzgerald White as Mister, the wicked scoundrel of a husband who finally gets his comeuppance near the end.

His unrelenting sheer brutality of Celie really hit me between the eyes throughout most of the first act, indeed much more so this time than my first viewing. I grasp that the tyranny Celie faces is pivotal to the entire narrative, but quite frankly, it’s extremely difficult to endure. However, so real is Celie’s suffering that the audience feels her anguish and pain; on this point, it actually serves to strengthen our empathy for her and our willingness to cheer when she vanquishes her nemesis.

But, oh, those pesky problems.

First remains the hyperkinetic supersonic speed in retelling major portions of Alice Walker’s groundbreaking novel. Certainly when an epic book is dramatized, it cannot drag on too long. Yet under Gary Griffin’s uneven direction of Marsha Norman’s libretto, context is often missing. To fully appreciate the gravity of some situations, a reading of the original source material or viewing of the film might prove beneficial to fill in the blanks.

If you’re not paying especially close attention, you may miss the subtle graying on the actors’ wigs from scene to scene meant to convey epoch lapses in time. Most jarring is the realization that little Harpo is suddenly all grown up; somehow – quite thankfully – he manages to turn into a primarily decent soul despite the despicable nature of his father. However, we miss the perspective of Celie’s guiding hand, which makes such maturity possible.

Second, while the score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray is truly memorable -- and I confess that it’s among a very limited number of cast albums from recent years that I’ve consistently listened to repeatedly -- it’s as if we’re getting mere snippets, or at best, edited versions of the top songs. Just as I start losing myself in a tune, it abruptly screeches to a halt, either to further speed the story along or enable deep passages of time to go by. The confounding effect has me pining for a cast album with fully realized extended versions of most songs.

Finally, as artistic and beautiful -- and yes, as moving -- as the sidebar journey to Africa is, the flow of the story is seriously impeded. Yes, it is a sight to behold, but since this is ostensibly Celie’s journey, it’s one scene that unnecessarily slows the momentum at a crucial moment when the tuner actually needs to chug along toward its second act climax.

Thankfully, midway through that act, there’s a noticeable shift in clarity and focus. Call it a harmonic convergence in which the direction, book and score all crystallize to become a powerful force that holds firm until the last note is sung.

It succeeds in building toward the triumphant “I’m Here,” which erases any lingering doubt that this is a good, worthy show. The song provides more than an ample crescendo to underscore just how far Celie’s journey has taken her -- without ever having traveled too far in real miles except via her soul. It’s at this moment when her self regard and esteem ultimately win the day – and the hearts of the audience. It’s also a testament to the enduring appeal of the material, almost in spite of itself. In Sengbloh’s heartfelt delivery of this song, I witnessed an understudy who made the most of her moment in the spotlight by indelibly searing her place in my heart.

Talk about great theatre. If only the rest of the show could match that last 45 minutes, it would be nothing short of a miraculous. But fortunately for the audience, just like Celie herself, the show’s indomitable spirit wins the day.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Curse Of The Understudy - Part III (July 23, 2007)
Winter Blues For Color Purple (February 5, 2007)
The Tonys: If I Could Vote...for Best Musical (May 31, 2006)

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At 12 August, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been thinking back on all the plays and musicals I've seen this year, and one thing that strikes me is how many of them involve a transformative journey on the part of a main character. Sometimes it's over the course of a night, sometimes it's decades-long. Some end tragically, and some happily.

But few affected me as deeply, as emotionally as Celie's story in The Color Purple. She comes from the lowest, most horrible place, a Dickensian childhood filled with abuse and deprivation. Yet she keeps going, never losing her faith, never losing hope that there's a better future around the corner.

I read the book and saw the movie years ago, but I didn't really remember much from either one, except that Celie was treated horribly and the book ended with a big picnic. But I'd forgotten most of the details, and I'm glad I did. It made the show, and especially the ending, much more powerful. And the ending is magnificent, with one little touch that I will never forget. For me, that's when the tears really started flowing.

I definitely agree with you about the wonderful cast, especially Saycon Sengbloh. She will always be my Celie. And NaTasha Yvette Williams as Sofia, wow. One scene between the two of them was so vivid, so real, that I felt a little nauseous.

I also agree with you about the pacing - things do seem to move pretty fast, especially in the first act. And the scene in Africa does kind of impede the flow of Celie's story.

But the music is beautiful. I'm still listening to it and gaining a deeper appreciation for it all the time. There's a sentence in the liner notes that says "Music is the best way we have to express our joy as human beings," and the music definitely expresses much joy and much sorrow.

My life experience is obviously very different from Celie's, yet by the end of The Color Purple, I knew so much about her world. I truly felt like I had witnessed a transformation both in time and in circumstance. Her story resonated with me more deeply than other shows I've seen that, on the face of it, you might think I'd identify with more. It's really an unforgettable story.

This may be a bit of a leap, but I've also been thinking of two other musicals in connection with The Color Purple. The story of a community united by faith and culture and facing a hostile outside world reminds me a little bit of Fiddler on the Roof. The way Celie is treated, how she is seen as ugly and unworthy, and the strong bond of friendship that she develops reminds me a little of Wicked. (And the only other time I've cried in the theater this year was at Wicked, during "For Good.")

Talk about great theatre, indeed.

At 14 August, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, What made this show especially gratifying to me is that we saw it together.

Hope you don't mind my sharing with the world, but thanks to this site, you've become a cherished friend and sister. Independently, we bought tickets to see this show and by some amazing twist of fate, our seats landed right next to each other. How fortunate was I to be able to share this show, our first with each other, with you by my side.

It was meant to be, and for that reason alone (if for no other), I'm glad I revisited The Color Purple!

At 14 August, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Steve, of course I don't mind! I'm so proud and so happy to be your sister and your friend and I want everyone to know it!

I was so thrilled to be by your side, and I can't believe I even suggested that we see something else when "you know who" was out. We were obviously meant to see The Color Purple together.

So thank-you Saycon Sengbloh for a wonderful, memorable performance. I think this experience proves that you should always give an understudy a chance.

Thank-you Steve, for your friendship and for being so enthusiastic about the theatre that you made me want to start going regularly. And I think it's also a testament to the power of the theatre that we could both be so moved by Celie's story.


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