“In terms of narrative structure, The Color Purple, on the whole, is imperfect. As a universal tale of oppression and survival, however, the musical does not disappoint, and this is what is bizarre. The Color Purple is spellbinding. That no person leaves the theater without having felt its magic is evidence in need of consideration. In the end, do negative notices matter? Do imperfections matter? Hell no. The Color Purple guarantees an action-packed and entertaining time.”
Read entire review:
If one reads criticism about The Color Purple, the judgments overflow with comparisons to the Alice Walker novel and the Stephen Spielberg film. While the comparisons are the natural place to start discussion, the viewer should not expect carbon copies of the novel and the film in the theater. Likening the musical to the sources upon which it is based is almost criminal. Film, literature, and theater are distinct entities. When the viewer approaches the musical, he needs to assess its merits as an original work. A discussion about whether the musical captures the heart of the novel is warranted, but the viewer should not expect to see a duplicate of the novel in the theater. How the musical jolts, jerks, and jars needs examination from a theatrical context.
The Color Purple is the tale of an embattled Black woman, Celie, who uses her harrowing life experience as incentive for self-empowerment. After bearing two children, the results of rapes at the hands of the man she believes is her father, she is sold to Mister, a local farmer, who barrages her with corporal, sexual, and verbal abuse. When his mistress, Shug, arrives in their Georgia parish, the maltreatment continues but is ended when both women, realizing the parallels between their conditions, form an emotional and lesbian bond. Through Celie, Shug learns self-worth, and through Shug, Celie learns strength in the veneer of sexual, mental, and financial emancipation from men. A new musical, The Color Purple—about the low position of Black women during the 1900s due to their sex and color—is flawed.
The book rushes action and narrative structure, forgetting to expound meaning. In Act II, for example, Shug tells Celie that it angers God when a person walks past the color purple in a field without stopping to admire it. She launches into the beautiful title song, which, full of metaphors about the color, fails to explain and educate the viewer about its meaning and how that meaning relates to Celie. “Like a blade of corn, all a part of me,/Like the color purple, where do it come from?” Shug sings. What is the meaning of the color purple? Here, the book fails. The meaning of the color is never discussed, and that characters sing a song about its merits is off-putting. In fact, the color has several meanings. One, purple is one of the liturgical colors in Christian images, meaning sorrow and mourning. Two, purple means womanhood, lesbianism, and feminism. Three, purple means courage and classlessness. Without background knowledge of the several meanings of the color, however, including the three abovementioned meanings that are applicable to the themes and events of the musical, significance is lost.
“What about Love?” is the greatest number in the musical. Its words and music are beautiful. However, the composers do not afford the number and several others the proper time to grow and impact the viewer, because each number falls victim to the desire to keep the production in motion. The first six numbers are well-made, but the remaining ones threaten to lose the interest the first five cultivate. Numbers like “What about Love?” are musical interludes.
What is more, characters are superficial. While the viewer feels for them, is the emotional response proof of the success of the musical, or is the emotional response due to the longstanding connection the viewer has had with the characters in their novel and film forms? It is almost as if the musical operates from the belief that the viewer, having read the Walker novel and seen the Spielberg film, will summon past experiences with characters and plot when the musical is lacking. In other words, the musical relies on the viewer being familiar with its sources to alleviate the burden of dramatizing a 350-page novel in 150 minutes. If the musical took the time to enliven the characters and plot, however, rather than rushing, the musical would be perfect. If The Color Purple needs to last five hours for narrative to unfold and develop in an organic manner, this is what is needed. Theater, when right, is awesome.
Despite unmistakable imperfections, The Color Purple still enthralls. The Color Purple serenades and seduces with its lush score, a fusion of blues, gospel, and jazz. (The numbers “Big Dog,” “Hell No!,” “Push da Button,” and “The Color Purple” capture the full range of musical traditions used.) When it was announced three composers with combined talent in all music except musical theater were charged with making The Color Purple sing, concern was aired. However, the composers have accomplished an undertaking of epic proportions that is admirable for a first attempt. When emotion becomes too strong for speech in The Color Purple, characters sing in a musical language rooted in passion and feeling; and when emotion becomes too strong for song, the music the composers have written affords characters the occasion to dance in spirited fits of handsome movement.
Felicia P. Fields and Elisabeth Withers-Mendes are treasures. As Sofia, the Black feminist taboo, Fields gives an outstanding performance. With her booming voice and grounded stature, she demands respect from her male counterparts—her husband included—and wins undivided attention and affection from the viewer. In comparison, Brandon Victor Dixon is cute and infectious as her husband, Harpo, whom she dominates.
As Shug, the wild, sexual, and free-spirited blues singer, Withers-Mendes is phenomenal. From rude and brutish inebriate to mentor and lover of Celie, each step Withers-Mendes takes is passionate. During her stage time, she is filled with the exuberance and raw élan that is the exact reason unattached and married men fight, fawn, and drool in her presence. Her performance is nothing but heightened when she sings the numbers “Too Beautiful for Words” and “What about Love?” She has an awe-inspiring voice that, powerful and numbing, leaves the listener wanting when her vocalizing ends. A gifted singer, Withers-Mendes riffs with patience and care, unlike popular singers who flaunt superfluous ornamentation and assist the listener in forgetting what their songs—their messages—are about.
The ensemble is amazing. The Color Purple carries no dead weight. Whether the three actresses who provide comic relief or the eight dancers who amaze with their athleticism, the combined talent of the ensemble renders the viewer speechless.
In terms of narrative structure, The Color Purple, on the whole, is imperfect. As a universal tale of oppression and survival, however, the musical does not disappoint, and this is what is bizarre. The Color Purple is spellbinding. That no person leaves the theater without having felt its magic is evidence in need of consideration. In the end, do negative notices matter? Do imperfections matter? Hell no. The Color Purple guarantees an action-packed and entertaining time.