The Bushnell wears “Purple” well.
The 2005 musical version of “The Color Purple” did an exceptional job of distilling a beloved book into a smooth, lively, emotional drama. The show’s recent Broadway revival, now on tour and in Hartford through Dec. 10, makes it even smoother.
Very little of Alice Walker’s multigenerational story, which spans half a century and two continents, is missing from Marsha Norman’s script adaptation. Norman leaves plenty of room for some stirring musical numbers by pop hitmakers Stephen Bray (Madonna’s “Into the Groove”), Brenda Russell (“Get Here”) and Allee Willis (the theme from “Friends”). The score has some pop affectations but also credible soul, blues and gospel feelings. The show begins with a simple folk song before bursting into complex harmonies.
Director John Doyle’s much-lauded Broadway production honors the show’s economy and variety with a staging and design that is basic without being simple.
Up to the point where a letter is handed to the heroine Celie at the end of the first act, the only real prop in the show is the whip which Celie’s husband “Mister” threatens her with. Every other object —a shovel, a pulpit, a baby — is suggested by the clever use of chairs, baskets or sheets. Such an unadorned stage helps you discern the many specific relationships that form among the show’s large cast of characters. The sparseness also underscores the poverty and uncertainty that some of these characters dwell in.
Many details may be left to the imagination, but “The Color Purple”’s central theme of violence against women is not. Angry moments and savage beatings are acted out in ways that may make you cringe. Women are humiliated and described as the property of their husbands. It takes some time for some of these women to escape their horrible circumstances. When escape or empowerment comes, it’s delivered with such powerful songs as “Hell No!” and “I’m Here,” numbers that have the audience whooping and cheering in solidarity.
As Celie, who suffers the worst abuses and insults in the show, Adrianna Hicks must navigate a path from subjugation to self-reliance. We see her growing in confidence and resolve. Some characters are strong when we first meet them, like the juke joint chanteuse Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart, bold and brassy) and Sofia (the towering Carrie Compere), wife of “Mister”’s son Harpo. Their challenge is to falter convincingly before regaining their composure. The rousing songs certainly help.
The male roles are, for the most part, the kind that generate boos and hisses from the crowd. Beady-eyed Gavin Gregory as the evil “Mister” makes you ask “Can this man ever be redeemed?” then makes you believe the answer.
“The Color Purple” is not a sung-through musical, but it might as well be. Some of the spoken dialogue is underscored with natural rhythms and percussive background sounds. There’s a three-woman chorus of town gossips whose non-musical chatting can be as harmonic as their singing.
“The Color Purple”’s not perfect. Spiritual awakenings can be shorthanded into sudden frenzies of faith and virtue. There are a lot of plot threads to tie up in the final 20 minutes. But the musical blessedly never gets bogged down. A style-shifting jazz number about “Miss Celie’s Pants” livens up the middle of the second act and keeps the momentum high for Celie’s indomitable solo “I’m Here.” The mood stays hopeful for a reprise of the Bible-belting title song, which begins with “Dear God, dear stars, dear trees, dear sky” and ends with “Amen.” You leave the theater shaken at the suffering you’ve seen, but reveling in the resilience of the human spirit.
Fans of Alice Walker’s novel, or of the 1985 Steven Spielberg film, have nothing to fear from this reverent, resonant musical adaptation. It adds new colors to the “Purple” spectrum.
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 and bushnell.org.