Sincerity means a lot, and the people who made a musical of The Color Purple are undoubtedly sincere in their intentions. Overflowing with goodwill and well-meant sentiments, knocked hard at you by a cast full of gifted people, the show grabs you often, jolting you when it needs to and jerking tears when it requires some. The openness of its intent to do these things clears it from any suspicion of shame. But sincerity isn’t skill, and it isn’t knowledge. The feelings that The Color Purple may arouse in you don’t disguise the fact that they’ve been gotten in a comparatively crude and unimaginative manner. The disheartening lack of quality in the material dilutes the quality of feeling with which it’s being put over and makes the meanings behind it look questionable as well.
I come to The Color Purple in all innocence, having neither read Alice Walker’s novel nor seen Steven Spielberg’s movie version of it. What I find is a story that makes only fantasy sense, in which the characters reverse their natures arbitrarily as needed, and pop into and out of the heroine’s life when convenient. Celie, the central figure, appears to be an updated version of the classic pre-feminist “women’s novel” heroine, whose function is to endure through as many different life possibilities as can be crammed into one story; adding a feminist consciousness simply means that her roles must now include escape from male-chauvinist victimization. So the musical’s Celie begins as a child raped and impregnated by her foster father, then traded to a man who brutalizes her, which she copes with long enough to raise and befriend his children by his first marriage, before discovering lesbian love with his sometime mistress and breaking away to fulfill her own innate potential as an entrepreneur, and at long last being reunited with the beloved sister her husband has driven away, and with her own children. Celie’s story is flanked by those of two contrastingly strong women who offer her alternative paths to independence: tough, self-asserting Sofia and Shug Avery, the seductive blues singer for whom Celie’s husband endlessly yearns.
Presumably Walker, within the space and complexity of a novel, was able to create a fuller reality, in which every event was more convincingly grounded. Nor should the historical and social importance of her novel’s success be minimized: However good it is or isn’t as a work, its existence as a mainstream bestseller means, in effect, another area of American life emancipated. For a woman of color who begins as an abused child in a Georgia dirt farmer’s shack to stand in the national consciousness where Scarlett O’Hara once stood is a pivotal point in our aesthetic history.
The musical’s book writer, Marsha Norman, has had to excavate a taut piece of theatrical storytelling from what must be a fairly dense-packed work, with results that unfortunately suggest a Disney cartoon version of both Walker’s narrative and the feminist ideas underpinning it. Everything happens in a quick, summary fashion, except when the show stops dead, not always in the right spot, to linger over Celie’s or someone else’s feelings in a musical number. At these moments the three songwriters, skilled professionals from the Hollywood pop scene, mostly display competence and craftsmanship rather than inspiration. One or two of the ensemble numbers built on traditional forms, refreshingly, break free of the standard pop conventions. But far too often you sit, watching dynamite performers give their all to a song, and wonder why the result doesn’t soar. Then the book takes over, and inexplicable events start rushing past again. Gary Griffin’s direction, like the score, looks competent and efficient rather than inspired, while the magical touches in Donald Byrd’s choreography, of which there are a goodly number, seem to occur in spasms, flashing by without bringing any sustained force to the dances in which they occur.
The lack of inspiration is saddening because The Color Purple invites so much love and has so much potential for arousing it. Griffin’s design team has done extremely well: John Lee Beatty can make even log cabins with tar paper roofs seem elegant, Paul Tazewell can give Georgia-church-lady clothes exactly the right touch of pastel chic, and Brian MacDevitt’s dappled lighting feels more genuinely Southern than anything else onstage. And the cast, inevitably, is The Color Purple‘s saving grace. It says something about the way artists of color are still underused in our society that, of the seven principals, all except LaChanze (Celie) and the fetching Renee Elise Goldsberry (Nettie) are completely new to me, four of them making their Broadway debuts, and every single one is first-rate: Felicia P. Fields (Sofia), Kingsley Leggs (Mister), Elisabeth Withers-Mendes (Shug Avery), Brandon Victor Dixon (Harpo), and Krisha Marcano (Squeak). As for LaChanze, if rocks could sing, I would say she was a rock, holding her place center stage and giving out with gut-busting high notes in a way that thrills the heart like, regrettably, very little else in The Color Purple. She even makes it seem only faintly ridiculous that other characters must constantly call Celie ugly, when all sane New York theatergoers already know that LaChanze is a beauty in her own right and the possessor of the city’s most winning smile.