John Doyle, known for blurring the lines between actor and musician in electrifying revivals of Sondheim and Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals (among others), strips away the glamour and largesse that marked and often marred the original Broadway production of The Color Purple. Doyle’s set, with bare wooden beams that hold a group of equally austere chairs suspended above the sluggish action, is about as muted as the faded colors of Ann Hould-Ward’s period-appropriate costumes. With stronger source material, this approach can shine radiant light on a classic, as Ivo van Hove is proving in his searing revival of A View From the Bridge. Marsha Norman is no Arthur Miller, though, and her book lacks both subtlety and a sense of dramatic pacing.
The first act plods ahead glacially, while the second jumps from one life-changing event to the next. Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray’s score offers some downright catchy hooks but is unforgivably thin on content. Jennifer Hudson thrills with her upper register as femme fatale Shug Avery, but it’s Cynthia Erivo — as the beleaguered Celie, who escapes an abusive marriage in the bleak days of early-twentieth-century Georgia — who unearths the soul of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel. Erivo’s voice reverberates throughout her body with a fury that ignites the show with purpose — if one that’s only fleeting.
The Color Purple
Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray
Book by Marsha Norman
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45th Street