Paring back the big musical to a bare staged filled with chairs, he lets powerful voices, elegant lyrics and creative acting carry the day. It’s a remarkable feat. With “The Color Purple,” director John Doyle proves less is so much more.
Alice Walker’s sprawling novel (which covered so many years, locations and characters it seems impossible to adapt) springs to life as the actors tell the story of Celie (Cynthia Erivo), her sister Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango) and a singer named Shug Avery (Heather Headley). In a 40-year time span, we watch as Celie is forced into marriage with an abusive spouse (Isaiah Johnson), influenced by the forceful Sofia (Danielle Brooks) and changed by the love of Shug.
It’s an amazing journey that Doyle brings vividly to life just by rearranging chairs, adding fabric here and there and letting those actors sing like they’re at a gospel convention vying for the top prize. No one in the cast disappoints. Headley brings a worldliness that shows there’s a place for Celie outside the confines of her small home. Brooks gives the quiet woman a voice. And when the forces combine to let Erivo sing out, she does so in such a miraculous way, tears are inevitable.
Indeed, “The Color Purple” is one of the most emotional shows in years. It inspires mid-song standing ovations, raucous audience responses and a second act moment that you won’t forget the rest of your life.
While Johnson plays a seemingly unrelenting character, he, too, gets a revelation. Erivo’s “I’m Here” is such a strong anthem, it should be sung in church.
The “Color Purple” company aids her nicely, playing a variety of characters, all memorable. Sioux Cityan Antoine L. Smith stands out as Shug’s husband, letting her show the kind of relationship Celie should enjoy. It’s a neat little riff that sets up much of the rest of the show.
Brooks gets her moment, too, and you never once remember that Oprah Winfrey (who produced this show) played the part.
Because Doyle is known for scaling down big shows (he introduced the idea of actors playing instruments in Sondheim musicals), it’d be easy to say he’s just using a gimmick. But with “Color Purple,” it’s not that. It’s probably the best way of all to approach something this huge. When the show is over, the message resonates and the moments linger in the best possible way.