While critics and fans alike justifiably lament the paucity of female leads in Broadway musicals this season just past, you need look no further than the current tour of The Color Purple for a musical filled to overflowing with noteworthy women characters. The beautiful and moving reimagination of Alice Walker's extraordinary novel of faith, despair, horror, beauty, love and redemption, The Color Purple might best be described as a woman's story, but it is, in every possible way, a human story as universal and as affecting as any work of musical theater ever created.
Earning 11 Tony Award nominations during its run on Broadway, the tour of The Color Purple returns to Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center for the second time, delighting audiences while delivering yet again some of the best singing ever heard in Andrew Jackson Hall. (And, remember, this is Music City USA, where we hear good singing just about every day of the week.) The amazingly gifted cast is led by the luminous Dayna Jarae Dantzler as the iconic Celie, the downtrodden African-American woman whose struggles rival those of Job and who ultimately conquers the forces that subjugate her to achieve a level of self-awareness and grace to which we should all aspire. Giving Nashville audiences (no matter how rude they were on opening night - but more about that later) yet another opportunity to see her multi-dimensional performance, Dantzler displays an impressive acting and vocal range while completely ingratiating herself to her rapt admirers.
Anytime a beloved tome or film is transferred to the stage, the production leaves itself open to dissection and oftentimes unending criticism, yet for me at least, The Color Purple is just as successful as a musical as it was as a book or film. The music fits perfectly the time frame and the situations that are presented onstage, blending the fervor of gospel music with the flowering genres of jazz and the blues, with a soupcon of Broadway theatricality at its very best.
With a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman (the librettist of The Secret Garden before this), with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, the musical of The Color Purple is both loyal to - and a fresh take on - Walker's novel, a more palatable serving of the original story. While much of the truly horrific episodes from the book occur offstage and are dealt with through onstage exposition, the musical nonetheless retains enough of the gritty truths evident in the novel to remain faithful to it. And the closing scene in the musical, while more inclusive (perhaps shockingly so to devoted fans of the book and the Steven Spielberg film version - which was just as controversial at the time of its release as the musical has been) and, therefore, more uplifting (if you can imagine it), remains faithful to the spirit of the source material.
Ranging from the show opening gospel number, "Mysterious Ways," which sets the tone for the score that follows, to Celie's anthemic "I'm Here" which is the apotheosis of her journey - the show's musical score is memorable, emotionally driven and tremendously hummable (something that all-too-often is missing in contemporary musical theater scores). "Brown Betty" recalls the earliest roots of the blues idiom, while "Push Da Button" is theatrical blues at its very best. "Shug Avery is Coming to Town" and "Miss Celie's Pants" combines the best elements of several musical idioms to showcase the showtune at its finest.
Exquisitely designed by some of theater's best and brightest, who include John Lee Beatty (scenic), Paul Tazewell (costumes), Brian MacDevitt (lighting), Craig Cassidy (sound) and Charles G. LaPointe (hair), The Color Purple is a visually compelling feast, providing a sumptuous setting for the show and, most likely, giving the cast an added push in finding the philosophical and emotional center for their characters. The live music accompanying the cast is performed by an equally impressive collection of musicians under the baton of conductor Nicholas Williams.