Chicago has a long history with “The Color Purple,” the 2004 musical version of Alice Walker’s beloved story of suffering, resilience and triumph. As produced by Oprah Winfrey, the star of the 1985 Steven Spielberg movie, Gary Griffin’s original Broadway production (which I first saw in Atlanta 15 years ago) played here for many months. John Doyle’s minimalist but starry and deeply potent Broadway revival, later out on the road with an exquisite touring cast, offered further chances to see Marsha Norman’s adaptation and hear the very sticky and initially underestimated musical numbers by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis (who also had a hand in most of the hits of Earth, Wind and Fire) and the frequent Madonna collaborator Stephen Bray. And there was a warm-centered Chicago production at the Mercury Theater in 2013, featuring Sydney Charles as one of the narrators.
So my work has led me to this show nine times before, but I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed it every time. And, sitting in Oakbrook Terrace Thursday night, I was struck by all the gasps of surprise at the plot points, many of which bespeak of the range of human cruelty. As with any musical, there is always a new audience. And, frankly, it was pretty clear Thursday that many people around me had never read this book. Maybe that will change with the next coming development in the story of “The Color Purple,” which is the movie of the musical, soon to be coming your way.
Charles, who plays the much bigger role of Shug Avery in the rising director Lili-Anne Brown’s new production, is one of the experienced anchors in what mostly is a young cast at the Drury Lane Theatre. Charles, centered and complex as ever, works alongside Nicole Michelle Haskins, whose towering performance as Sofia could withstand comparison to the Tony Award-nominated turn by Felicia P. Fields, which is no faint praise in my book. I also found Gilbert Domally, the whopping young talent who plays Harpo, similarly impressive.
Newcomer Eben K. Logan reaches down deep to find her Celie and she comes up with a deeply moving performance that feels fully earned and owned. For a theater of this level, Logan has a way to go with the score, as in the more technical aspects of really delivering the songs on pitch and with full vocal force, especially the climatic “I’m Here.” To find help there, she might looks across at Kyrie Couter, the skilled singer and superb actress playing Nettie, Celie’s beloved sister. But I think Logan may get there on her own, once the enormity of this task settles. And even now, you believe every moment of what she is doing. This is what matters most. The rest, with help, will come.
I’d say the same for the rest of the production. At times the stage pictures need more clarity and cohesion, as do the rules of physical engagement. You see one actor respecting an interior division within Arnel Sancianco’s set, and another walking right through a wall you just have formed in your mind. And a couple of key moments are blocked from much of the audience. The show will improve the more the performers trust the material and let it breathe around them; my favorite aspects of Breon Arzell’s very creative choreography are when it starts to burrow into the sub-conscious of the characters. There is real pain in this show: what occurs between Celie and Mister (Melvin Abston) ranges deeper, I think, than this staging yet goes; Abston needs to walk further into a room few of us care to enter, if only to find his way out the other side, by the grace of Celie, and remind us of the real systemic roots of all his actions.
But in its best moments, this “Color Purple” has something none of these other productions had to quite the same extent; an empowered ensemble, working as one in service of a sung parable. With lessons for all of us. And hope.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.