Some classic Broadway musicals – “Show Boat,” “Dreamgirls,” “Oklahoma!” – have re-opened within a few years of closing to capitalize on audience’s fond memories, but few go through a top-to-bottom overhaul that radically redesigns the show. “The Color Purple” did that in 2015, just seven years after the original production closed, and won a Tony for best musical revival.
Director John Doyle has become famous for stripping big musicals down to dramatic essences, from a smaller-scale “Sweeney Todd” to the streamlined “Carmen Jones” now playing off-Broadway. That approach works splendidly with “Purple,” which has come to Belk Theater for a week in the PNC Broadway Lights season.
The revamping begins with Doyle’s unchanging set. Four dozen brown wooden chairs hang on a 40-foot clapboard wall; another half dozen sit on the floor, on a platform that leads to three steps going down. The designer-director wants nothing to distract us from Celie’s journey, as she moves from a 12-year-old raped twice by someone she trusts to an empowered, financially successful woman who trusts her own strength.
Marsha Norman’s script, like Alice Walker’s novel, begins with Celie as a nearly blank slate. Because she has known only unkindness and neglect, she thinks of herself as ugly and unlovable. Yet the women in her life soon write other things on that slate.
Sofia (rambunctious Carrie Compere), who marries Celie’s stepson Harpo, teaches her both the value and limits of a black woman’s self-assertion in the South between the two world wars. Nettie, the sister who becomes an African missionary (endearing N’Jameh Camara), reveals the vastness of the world beyond rural Georgia. Cabaret singer Shug (charismatic Carla R. Stewart) shows Celie tenderness and forms a long-term sexual connection with her.
Celie eventually becomes someone capable of love but not dependent on it, willing to forgive without forgetting, able to take in the world’s beauty while still perceiving the ugliness. “I’m here,” she insists more than once, demanding to be taken into account. In Adrianna Hicks’ powerhouse performance, a physical change accompanies the emotional one: Watch how she stands, moves, even holds her body differently as Celie grows.
Neither Norman not composer-lyricists Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray have solved all the show’s problems. The narrative has so many characters that some remain afterthoughts (Squeak, Harpo’s girlfriend) or mere sketches (Harpo himself). Only the abusive Mister, who marries Celie to get a submissive housekeeper, has a real character arc among the men; despite Gavin Gregory’s impassioned delivery of Mister’s big song near the end of the show, its lyrics don’t inspire the epiphany he has later on.
You might not dwell on these things, because Doyle moves the show along so quickly. He has removed minor characters and small subplots and cut the ensemble to less than half its original size. (Without set changes, the story flows especially rapidly.)
Mekhai Lee, a Northwest School of the Arts graduate, turns up in that ensemble and the small role of Grady, Shug’s husband. His energy, blended with everyone else’s, whirls us through turbulent emotional waters toward a final “Amen” that yields peace and joy.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
‘The Color Purple’
WHEN: Through July 15 at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
RUNNING TIME: 145 minutes with one intermission.
TICKETS: $25-$124.50. Also $25 for student rush or for any buyer less than two hours before curtain.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.