By Brian Scott Lipton
It’s not just the final “Amen” that gives the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s stunning Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple the feeling of a church service. Lessons of tolerance, redemption, forgiveness, and, most importantly, self-acceptance are smartly delivered here, and no one will walk out as a non-believer. John Doyle’s physically-stripped down and laser-focused production (about 30 minutes shorter than the original 2005 Broadway production) hits you squarely in the heart and soul, aided immeasurably by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray’s consistently tuneful, accomplished score, and a truly dynamic cast led by British unknown Cynthia Ervio.
This petite powerhouse is simply sensational as Celie, whom we first meet as a shy, pregnant, 14-year-old (raped by her own father) and who gradually transforms from an embittered young woman into a self-confident adult, willing to speak her mind, follow her dreams – romantically and professionally – and see the good (and bad) in the world. As her Broadway predecessors, LaChanze (who rightfully won the Tony award for the role) and the unforgettable Fantasia, both did, Ervio makes a full-course meal out of her cathartic 11’o clock number “I’m Here,” earning a well-deserved standing ovation at the song’s conclusion.
Doyle’s streamlining of the show not only makes Celie’s spiritual journey the true center of the show, but even somehow strengthens her relationships with the other women in her life. First and foremost of these is the hedonistic jazz singer Shug Avery, portrayed by Oscar and Grammy winner Jennifer Hudson. At times, her acting can be surprisingly stiff (you can sense her discomfort at playing the sexpot), but her vocals are beyond extraordinary. Also, given her superstardom, Hudson deserves great praise of her obvious onstage generosity; she’s almost tentative about taking the spotlight.
That’s less true of “Orange is the New Black” star Danielle Brooks, who acts up a storm and sings to the stratosphere as the sassy Sofia (always a crowd-pleasing role). And this go-round, there truly seems to be an unbreakable connection between Celie and her sister, Nettie – largely because she’s portrayed with both resilience and radiance by the magnificent Joaquina Kalukango. (I also love the gossipy church ladies embodied by Carrie Compere, Bre Jackson, and Rema Webb).
I think it’s no accident that in Marsha Norman’s adaptation, Walker’s menfolk are true supporting characters. Still, Isaiah Johnson is quite memorable as Celie’s thoughtlessly cruel husband, Mister. Conversely, Kyle Sutcliffe is rather too subdued as his son Harpo (who marries Sofia) and the rest of the male roles are basically cameos.
Doyle’s “set,” primarily a large wooden wall of chairs that are taken down and used for a variety of purposes, is perhaps more minimal than necessary. Similarly, Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes don’t have that much variety (with Hudson getting the most glamorous duds), and no effort has been made to age the characters over 40 years. But the lack of spectacle is more than made up for by the sharpness of the storytelling, the superb direction, and the brilliant performances. Color me ecstatic!
The Color Purple at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (242 West 45th Street). Running time: 2hr 15 min with intermission.