Cynthia Erivo’s Celie may be small in stature but her voice is anything but petite. Through song Celie declares she is “here” with such force that it threatens to collapse time and space. With one note it feels as if Erivo’s voice could bring together every one of Celie’s ancestors and conjure them to the Broadway stage in John Doyle’s remarkable revival of The Color Purple. The gospel and blues inflected musical offers an array of powerhouse female characters to inhabit and this simple production favours performance over detailed sets or complex choreography. With a cast this talented, audiences are not likely to mind the minimalist clarity this approach provides.
Sisters Celie and Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango) are devoted to each other. Celie keeps the peace and the house, while Nettie is fighting to get an education (it’s Georgia in 1909). They have both suffered from years of incestuous attacks by their father (Kevyn Morrow). When a violent and cruel man known as Mister (Isaiah Johnson) comes looking to marry the attractive Nettie, her father refuses the match and suggests Mister take “ugly” Celie instead. Celie trades one abuser for another and marries Mister.
Mister is in part miserable because his father would never let him marry the sultry singer Shug Avery (Jennifer Hudson). Shug remains a frustratingly fleeting part of his life as she breezes into town from time to time to reignite that old flame. Mister’s son from his first marriage, Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe), marries a fiercely independent woman, Sofia (Danielle Brooks), who would never tolerate a hand raised to her. Celie continues to submit to Mister even as Sofia tries to convince her to stand up for herself. But it is Shug that changes everything for Celie and unlocks Celie’s sense of self.
With music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, and a book by Marsha Norman, the musical (based upon the Alice Walker book and film of the same name) allows us to experience an array of female characters with their own agency – expressing desires to get an education, experience love, enjoy sex and make a family. The interplay between the women mostly stays away from tired old tropes (there’s one cat-fight between two women played for laughs) and lets each woman define her life as she sees fit. Despite the setting in the first half of the twentieth century, there’s a gripping sense of the contemporary to these women. Far from anachronistic, the production and the cast make the issues addressed – wanting to feel young, wanting to be desired, wanting to be respected, or wanting to be loved – feel vivid and universal.
For all the abuse Celie suffers, there is still humour, love, and friendship in her life. Erivo’s sweet, quiet, resigned Celie transforms into a hurricane of hurt, anguish, anger and rebirth. Erivo, making her Broadway debut, delivers no-nonsense laugh lines with aplomb and slowly reveals her character’s emotional evolution. Erivo’s lovely purring voice can whisper a line and break your heart or she can sing and fill the entire theatre with a voice as big as a mountain. But particularly in the quiet moments, when she’s gently doing Shug’s hair or dreaming of Nettie, Erivo’s eyes brighten as she beams an incredible warmth across to the audience. Doyle’s staging often places Erivo front and centre, a choice which connects us intimately with her character and challenges us to really look at her as an individual. And it is hard to resist her charms.
Erivo is not alone in grabbing the audience’s attention. Danielle Brooks, also making her Broadway debut, relishes every hip-swing and side-eye glance she throws as the brassy Sofia. The stage lights up when she takes centre and her flirty chemistry with Kyle Scatliffe ratchets up the sex appeal. Scatliffe makes a case for himself as a musical comedy performer (previous stints in Les Miserables and The Scottsboro Boys did not give him a chance to show off his comic chops).
As much as Shug is meant to be Georgian kryptonite and a woman who makes all men and women weak in the knees, as Jennifer Hudson plays her she feels a bit more earthbound. Hudson (another Broadway debut) is certainly a talented singer, but on stage she comes off as subdued and tentative. She feigns affection for Celie but it is never believable. This does not derail the show but it is disappointing for a relationship that is central to the story.
Although everything we see is inherently tinged with the history of slavery and its aftermath, what’s remarkable is how little the musical actually speaks overtly of it. It seems as if the set design (also by Doyle) which consists of a massive wooden wall of chairs and broken floorboards is meant to evoke this history. Like the families forcibly split apart, the setting for this musical is on a surface that is fractured and full of gaps.
Doyle’s production relies at first on a heavily desaturated palette, which is broken when Shug comes on the scene. Slowly colour drifts onto stage and back into Celie’s life – from the vibrant images of her sister’s letters to Shug’s pink home (nicely rendered through lighting by Jane Cox). With these subtle shifts in what we see, we live Celie’s transformation with her and her eventual exultation allows us catharsis. Pack tissues if you want to make it through.