The Color Purple: Pantages, 2/18/10

19 02 2010

My first encounter with The Color Purple occurred in fall 2006, during the whirlwind Duke in NY Arts program (following the whirlwind Duke in London Drama program that started my love affair with theater).  I was on a high being in NYC for my first extended period of time; while I was learning to be critical, I still got a rush of excitement from almost every theatrical experience.  (Almost.  James Joyce’s Exiles in London was a notable exception.) I remember being absolutely enchanted by The Color Purple in 2006, and I was thrilled to find that – even with a slightly more trained and critical eye – I still experienced that undeniable thrill with the current national tour.

Daryl Miller at the LA Times hits the nail on the head with this one.  The hype for this tour surrounds Fantasia Barrino’s starring role as Celie – and rightfully so.  A (frighteningly) fine line lies between actor and character; Fantasia draws from a well of personal experience to deliver a stunning, emotionally open performance – embodying Celie’s transition from a fragile, confused, and abused little girl to a powerful, self-aware woman wearing the pants in her life.  She unfolds like a butterfly; her gravely, breathy voice gradually gives way to the soaring assertion, “Yes, I’m beautiful, and I’m here.”

The moments in which character gives way to “real life” in theater always fascinate me.  I remember student rushing Hairspray several times in NYC.  From the front row, I could see Darlene Love whisper “Thank you, Jesus” at the end of “I Know Where I’ve Been.”  That moment jolted me out of the theatrical reality when I first noticed it; did I really see what I thought I saw?  But there it was, performance after performance.  For me, it made the anthem all the more powerful for having genuine meaning beyond the theatrical setting to Love.  “Seasons of Love” in Rent works similarly; director Michael Grief encouraged the cast to break character and the fourth wall, extending the song’s applicability beyond the world of the show.  So Celie/Fantasia’s breakdown in “I’m Here” is likewise a moment of culminating character/individual transformation.  The tension between performer and character is thrilling.  I don’t know how Fantasia sustains it from night to night, but this is certainly a performance to witness.

The Color Purple is far from perfect.  Like Miller, I had problems with sound design; there is a particularly strange reverb effect on Mister’s voice that is incommensurate with the rest of the cast’s only somewhat clearer vocals.  A second viewing also drew my attention to structural problems with the text, primarily due to how much plot must be plowed through.  Bookwriter Marsha Norman might have benefited from paring down the story, allowing for more extended scenes (rather than filmic cuts) and a bigger embrace of musical moments, which often feel rushed. Gary Griffin’s direction is filmic in accordance with the book’s demands; from the back row corner of the theater, it is sometimes hard to follow all the jumps among action in different areas of the stage.

With a deep gospel and spiritual inflection, The Color Purple certainly lends itself to musicalization.  “The Good Lord Works in Mysterious Ways,” “Somebody Gonna Love You,” “Our Prayer,” “The Color Purple” … all these anthems linger in our memory beyond the theater.  (And how thrilling to hear an overture of these hits before the curtain rises!)  The three church ladies also steal the show with their gossipy harmonizations.  But my perpetual problem with new musical theater is awkward recitative.  After Mister slaps her and takes her sister Nettie, Celie erupts into a rhythmically off-kilter, “You can’t do this, you can’t do this.”  From the very first viewing, this line has always bothered me; the sung breakdown is so artificial that the construction of it draws me out of the moment.  Perhaps this is just me being nit-picky about composition.  Regardless, it is notable that the most effective and memorable moments in this musical are not those when the plot is being driven forward at a breakneck pace, but those when the pace is slowed and a moment is embraced.  Another scene that I adore is the Act II opening “African Homeland” sequence, stunningly choreographed by Donald Byrd.  As Celie reads her sister’s letters from Africa, the vibrance of her homeland comes to life onstage: a visual and aural rush that envelops the audience in the wondrous moment, before progressing the plot.

Despite structural issues, I still have a deep appreciation for The Color Purple and would recommend it even without Fantasia at the helm.  In both my encounters with this musical, what lingers most in my memory is the audience itself: a multigenerational and ethnically diverse crowd that engages with the show in a bold, visceral, vocal manner.  The audience gasps when they learn that Celie has been raped by her father.  They shout their encouragement to Sofia in “Hell No!”  They applaud when Fantasia/Celie gets up the courage to leave Mister. Not only are audience members deeply invested in this actor/character of Fantasia/Celie, but they are unabashed to express it and become a part of the drama themselves.  Such a vocal response makes one very aware of the communal experience of theatergoing.  For me, the excitement and inspiration of The Color Purple lies not so much in the text and its performance, but in this communion created among audience members: such a precious gem in the age of home-based entertainment.

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