Oprah Winfrey Presents The Color Purple
Durham Performing Arts Center
Through May 17
The prodigal catalytic character Shug Avery gets to utter the title line of Alice Walker's 1983 Pulitzer-winning novel, the touring musical version of which is now appearing at Durham Performing Arts Center as Oprah Winfrey Presents The Color Purple. The wild-living Shug believes "it pisses God off" when people walk by the gift of color (song, dance, freedom, love) in life's drab fields without noticing it and rejoicing. If you are scanning the field of musicals for something demanding its royal prerogative of attention, look at this Purple.
Adapted by Marsha Norman from Walker's wrenching, hopeful book, this musical play has some of the darkest shadows and coarsest cruelties lightened and some sexually bright spots dimmed, but it remains remarkably true to the spirit of Walker's novel, and does no violence to her complex explorations of the varieties of love and their relationship to freedom. The long, weaving lines of the story stay intact, and the inventive staging makes Walker's paean to the epistolary word even more powerful than when one reads it. The music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray occasionally stray over the line into sentimentality, but most of the songs are wonderful and the music fresh—with several nods to Gershwin's great Porgy and Bess. The Color Purple is not fully operatic like Porgy, but it rises repeatedly to that level in the performances.
Standby Phyre Hawkins, who sang Celie on opening night, was wonderful in both her acting and her singing—believable at every stage of her difficult story. The feisty Sofia is magnificently embodied by Felicia P. Fields, and Angela Robinson is fine as the sexy Shug—and not just when she's shaking her bugle beads and her Josephine Baker headdress. Rufus Bonds Jr.'s Mister could use a little more of an edge, but Brandon Victor Dixon as his son Harpo was adorable. The supporting cast is all strong, and they can all dance. Because it is Donald Byrd's choreography that fuels the force of this production, as much as the music or lyrics, that is a good thing. There are some spectacular dance pieces, but all the movement throughout is freighted with emotional information, and takes this show beyond the standard for musicals.
Sadly, the sound in the theater, while not terrible, was not great. The lively orchestra was sometimes allowed to drown the voices, and the mixing of multiple voices seemed to be a problem. And what is the deal with all the sound cables draped from the balconies? However, the technical possibilities of the house are put to great use by the flats, scrims, projections and lighting which create a vivid world with several settings. Overall, this is a deeply satisfying production of a deeply moving story.