There are bountiful reasons to see “The Color Purple” when it arrives at The Bushnell for its six-day run Dec. 5 to 10.
It’s the national tour of a Tony-winning hit. It’s a revival of a show that was just as big a deal when it first made its debut more than a decade ago. Its cast is led by Adrianna Hicks, Carla R. Stewart and Carrie Compere — all of whom appeared in the show (sometimes in different roles) when it was on Broadway. It’s based on a great American novel.
And “The Color Purple” is an opportunity to see the work of John Doyle, an internationally celebrated director whose shows tend not to go out on tour.
Doyle is one of the most acclaimed directors in the modern musical theater world. Active in British theater for decades, he became known on Broadway about a decade ago for his radical reworkings of the Stephen Sondheim musicals “Sweeney Todd” and “Company.”
He is known for his spare, focused productions of musicals, often carefully attuned to the venues in which they are first performed. He often has actors pick up musical instruments and play along with the orchestra. He is credited with reconsidering the definition of musical theater, bringing a deeper dramatic realism to the fore.
Composers, librettists and producers flock to Doyle to see how their musicals can be re-imagined or given fresh perspectives. Doyle is happy to oblige.
“You end up doing what you’re invited to do,” the director says during a recent phone interview. “Obviously, I get asked to do a lot of revivals.”
But when asked to apply his talents to the respected 2005 musical “The Color Purple” — based on the Pulitzer-winning Alice Walker novel about oppressed African-American women in the Southern United States in the first half of the 20th century — Doyle at first demurred.
“I thought, ‘This is not a good idea. I’m British, I’m a man and I’m white.’ I looked at the material, and it was great, but I still was not sure. Then I read Alice Walker’s novel and thought, yes, I’m interested.”
The revival opened at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory theater in the summer of 2013.
But Doyle’s concerns continued. “When it was on Broadway, I was still concerned about white-male issues. But it seems to have worked out all right.”
The show ran for more than two years on Broadway, winning a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.
“Inevitably, when I remake something it feels different,” Doyle says. “I’m the arthouse sort of director. I guess there’s also something of what used to be called a show doctor in me.”
Yet Doyle never feels that he’s “saving” shows.
“‘Sweeney Todd’ was not a remaking of a production [that] hadn’t worked the first time. Hal Prince’s production was a masterpiece. When I’m asked to direct,” Doyle says, “I approach the material as if I’ve not seen it before.”
With “A Color Purple,” he says “in a way, I staged it less like a typical musical, but I wanted it to look full.” That instinct helped now that the show is touring to large venues such as the 2,800-seat Bushnell.
“I was watching it at a theater in Schenectady that’s also 2,800 seats. I haven’t seen a big difference in how it’s playing,” compared to the 1,000-seat Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre the show inhabited in New York. Doyle hopes to check in on the tour regularly, including when it’s at the Bushnell. He has a home in Connecticut.
Doyle has a regular group of designers he likes to work with, “not out of complacency but because there’s a better communication among us.”
Several have joined him on “The Color Purple.” Doyle calls one of them, Dan Moses Schreier, “a sound designer who prioritizes lyrics.” Connecticut audiences know Schreier from the Hartford Stage and Broadway productions of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and from the chamber opera “The Shoulder” he created with Dan Hurlin at the Long Wharf Theatre in 1999.
“The Color Purple”’s costume designer, Ann Hould-Ward, is another frequent collaborator. Since 2015, Doyle has been the artistic director of New York’s Classic Stage Company, which has become an incubator for some of his projects. CSC specializes in revivals, as does Doyle.
“I’ve done quite a few new pieces,” he says, “but they take longer.”
THE COLOR PURPLE — book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Stephen Bray and Brenda Russell and Allee Willis, directed by John Doyle — runs Dec. 5 to 10 at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. $22.50-$112.50. 860-987-6000, bushnell.org.