Oakbrook Terrace– Standing ovations seem to be automatic in Chicagoland theater. The enthusiasm of audiences can be questioned too often, but not in the case of the Drury Lane revival of “The Color Purple.” The raucous, occasionally disruptive opening night audience was well within its rights in noisily saluting the theater’s superb production. Whether that ovation should extend to the merits of the musical is a matter of opinion.
“The Color Purple” was born as Alice Walker’s 1982 novel about the tribulations and ultimate survival of a back female who struggles through a life of poverty and abuse in rural Georgia from 1911 to 1945. The novel inspired a motion picture adaptation by Steven Spielberg in 1985 and the musical premiered on Broadway in 2005, both closely following the Walker original.
The strengths of the musical version reside in its varied, functional score, which runs from rhythm and blues and jazz to gospel and pop. The music and lyrics were composed by Brenda Russel, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray and they have given the cast some great numbers—solos, duets, and ensemble pieces—that the Drury Lane cast eats up The score is partnered with Breon Arzell’s mostly jive-tinged choreography.
The show’s problems reside in a storyline that dramatist Marsha Norman hasn’t totally been able to conquer. Some of the difficulties come from the Walker original. The novel portrays the miserable life of lead character Celie, who we first meet as a suffering 14-year old. Celie is abused, sexually and otherwise, by her father, who forces her into a brutal marriage with the callous Mister. Celie eventually is separated from her beloved younger sister Nettie and has her two babies taken from her. Her husband viciously destroys any self esteem the girl may have with his relentless ridicule and all round soul grinding life.
Photo Credit – Brett Beiner
The story becomes a saga of Celie’s conquest of her hard scrabble existence, as she perseveres to achieve a sense of independence and self worth. For admirers of tales about the triumph of the human spirit, Celie’s life story will be a joy to witness. But for me, watching Celie being brutalized and bullyed for much of the evening made “The Color Purple” a pretty bleak viewing experience.
Celie isn’t the show’s only downtrodden female character. Her strong-willed sister-in-law Sofia is beaten nearly to death by white people in a shadow scene that is the only specifically white intrusion into what otherwise is a totally black world of poverty, old time religion, and misogyny. Sofia does endure, her strong personality an obvious symbol of black female resiliency and empowerment. The other major female character is the worldly nightclub singer Shug Avery, born to survive in the racist culture around her. She forms a lesbian relationship with the affection-starved Celie, and by the end of the show the quartet of Celie, Nettie, Shug Avery, and Sofia emerge as MeTwo-style heroines.
The 17-member ensemble has no weaknesses. They can all sing and dance and act, bringing their characters, whether sympathetic or despicable, to vivid life. Eben K. Logan is terrific as the downtrodden Celie, enduring with great inner fortitude her miserable life. One problem with the book is the handling of the plot’s chronology. Celie enters as a young teenager and her appearance, including her shabby dress, doesn’t change for most of the production, forcing the audience to guess just what decades the storyline is moving through. Only at the end of the evening does Celie change to a colorful costume to match the new confidence and assertiveness she has acquired. Characters come and go but there is little sense of time passing.
Kyrie Courter is fine as the warm hearted Nettie who has somehow escaped the horrors of her sister’s life. Nicole Michelle Haskins is a strong voiced and physically dominant Sofia and Sydney Charles is the earthy Shug Avery, who takes control of her life with a combination of singing talent, sex, and strength of character.
The key men in “The Color Purple” are villainous human beings, a point of some controversy among those who felt that black males were being bashed with too much intensity. At Drury Lane, Melvyn Abston is all too convincing as the cruel Mister. The show does give him “Mister’s Song” near the end of the show, an emotional cry of the heart that attempts to see the story from a man’s viewpoint. Abston delivered the number with passion but the number seemed like a bone tossed to black males otherwise savaged by the story. Gilbert Domally does extract a bit of black male sympathy as the henpecked but basically decent young Harpo. Melanie Loren lightens up the somber proceedings as a young lady named Squeak. The character serves no great purpose in the narrative but does inject a bit of humor into her scenes.
Photo Credit – Brett Beiner
Arnel Sancianco designed the functional mutilevel single set, weathered planks and hanging sheets that evoke Celie’s shabby rustic world. Samantha C. Jones designed the costumes (a nice mix of the sporty and the bedraggled) Cat Wilson designed the lighting, Paul Deziel the projections, and Ray Nardelli the sound plan. Lili-Anne Brown directs the show with a sure touch, portraying Celie’s claustrophobic world portrayed by with credibility, avoiding sentimentality potholes.
“The Color Purple” will be of obvious special interest to black viewers, but it is a show that doesn’t play a race card. It does display its feminist credentials with gusto. I admired rather than liked the show. The relentless abuse inflicted on Celie turned too much of the story into an emotional monotone, but I have no complaints about the performances and staging.
‘The Color Purple’ gets a rating of
“The Color Purple” runs through November 3 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane. Performances are Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., Thursday at 1:30 and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $55 to $70. Call 630 530 0111 or visit