The Color Purple

<i>The Color Purple</i>: They brought some serious treats.

The Color Purple: They brought some serious treats.

Photo By Paul kolnik

Rated 4.0

They’re all called The Color Purple—the book (’82), the film (’85) and now a musical (2005, on tour). And while they share the same characters and plot, they don’t push the similarities too far.

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was challenging, introspective and gritty, with a vivid same-sex romance liberating the main character, Celie.

Stephen Spielberg’s movie was a more conventional Hollywood melodrama, soft-pedaling the aforementioned romance.

Now, years later, we’ve got the musical. As you’d expect, there’s abundant singing and dancing, drawing on gospel, blues and jazz. (The production is a showcase of African-American culture.) And the score’s orchestrated with glitzy brass and percussion flourishes—standard for Broadway. And there’s a love anthem leading into intermission.

But while following the proven recipe for this category of extroverted entertainment, the show’s creators have tried to keep the musical more faithful to the author’s vision than the film managed to be. The central same-sex romance is still kinda underplayed, but the uplifting theme of Celie’s liberation from poverty and domination by cruel men is clear. The distinctive author’s voice gets obscured in all that dancing—but we’re talking apples and oranges with such a comparison.

At two-and-a-half hours, with a story spanning 40 years and two continents, The Color Purple also suffers from jet lag. (Think Ragtime with an all-black cast.) Scenery keeps sliding past as we leap forward a year, three years or more with each song.

There are some fine performances, including Felicia P. Fields as the lovable, stout, stubborn Sofia, and Jeannette Bayardelle as Celie, both from the Broadway cast. At times, Celie almost resembles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, surviving unspeakably bad treatment yet somehow coming out on top, but with a sexual and racial subtext that’s more modern and American.