By Jeff Walsh
It's hard for me to review the Oprah Winfrey-produced touring production of "The Color Purple" without starting at the end and working backwards.
I should point out that since this musical is based on a 24-year-old novel by Alice Walker and a 22-year-old movie by Steven Spielberg, I will be making no attempt to write around "spoilers." If you don't know the story, and don't want to, stop reading.
I don't know that I have ever seen a more compelling musical to trumpet atheism than "The Color Purple," though it is packaged as a spiritual show. The final words sung in the show are "Look what God has done. Amen."
To which the only rational response could be: If that's God, you can keep Him.
OK, let me get this straight. A young black woman, Celie, is continually raped by her father. The resulting babies are taken away without her ever knowing what happened to them. Her horrible father gives her to an abusive husband (the deal sweetened by the guy getting a cow in addition to his "ugly" bride). Celie is worked hard all day, and get the benefit of passionless sex with her husband at night. Her husband forbids her from seeing her beloved sister, Nettie, whom she loves more than anything. Her husband hides decades of letters from her sister, so Celie thinks her sister never wrote or is dead. Celie finally finds love for the first time in the arms of Suge Avery, the woman her husband always wanted to marry. Suge can never love her full-time, always taking up with different men. Celie finally leaves her husband, starts her own business, and is finally (as a rather old woman) reunited with her sister, as well as her kids whom the sister had been raising as a missionary in Africa all these years.
Her life is basically a parade of unending suffering, hardship, and loss. Yet, after decades, she finally stands up for herself and is reunited with her now-old sister and adult children whom she doesn't even know... and the message is to behold the power of God? Seriously, this misguided moral at the end sort of taints what is an otherwise delightful and moving experience. Everything else is pure theater joy.
It is so rare to see a gospel-tinged musical with an all-black cast given such a lavish, loving production. The story has humor in the guise of its Greek Chorus of three gossipy church ladies who show up throughout and comment on the action. There's a lot of nice dancing and choreography.
Some show-stopping vocals come by way of Felicia P. Fields, who owns the stage as Sofia (the character Oprah made famous in the movie, and for which Fields was nominated for a Tony Award, as she originated the role on Broadway). Her song, titled "Hell No!", gives you her take on being hit by her husband. And Jeannette Bayardelle handles the Herculean reigns of Celie giving her the required humanity and fragility for the show to work. Michelle Williams, as Shug Avery, comes to the stage by way of Destiny's Child and proves she's still a Survivor.
One thing that confused me in the show is that the audience laughed on two occasions when Celie was referred to as ugly by her abusive husband. I'm not sure if it was just nervous laughter, but it did seem slightly off for that to be a laugh line.
Save for the sapphic coda of Act One, the show even gives us some male eye candy with the shirtless Field Hands talking about Celie's "Big Dog" of a husband. There is regret and redemption in the show, even forgiveness. And, despite my rather dire recanting of the plot above, a lot of humor and joy. Even the music is varied and keeps things moving beautifully. The show's music is firmly rooted in the gospel and spiritual world, with a lot of opportunity to highlight the amazing range of the cast. Some of the melodies from the show stay locked in your head afterward and are welcome for as long as they wish to stay, which is the true test of any musical.
I don't mean to dismiss the power and catharsis of the reunion at the end of the show. The moment is joyful, earned, and entirely transcendent. You can feel a palpable joy wash over the audience at the reunion and, from the stage, it must look like a crowd of people smiling and weeping in equal amounts. I would tell anyone to see this show without hesitation.
But a big part of the power of the finale is knowing all of the tragedy that had taken place while the sisters were separated for so long. And, if God gets credit for that reunion, He has a lot of explaining to do for the intervening 40 years.
Look what God has done, indeed.
The show is playing at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco through December 9. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster. The show is scheduled to play various U.S. cities through July 2008, including: Los Angeles, Tempe, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Detroit, and Philadelphia. It is also still playing on Broadway in New York City. For show information, visit http://www.colorpurple.com/