How is it possible that a musical based on a book written nearly 40 years ago feels more timely than ever today? The tour of the Tony-winning Broadway revival of The Color Purple just opened at the Pantages Theatre, and its messages of female empowerment in the face of rape, sexual assault, and domestic abuse resonate so strongly with the Time’s Up movement that its presence in Hollywood feels prescient.
Based on the book of the same name by Alice Walker, The Color Purple follows Celie (Adrianna Hicks), a young black woman living in Georgia. The story begins in 1909, when she has just given birth to her second child, although both babies are immediately whisked away by her father to fates unknown. Several years later, she is forced to marry a man known as Mister (Gavin Gregory), despite the fact that her sister, Nettie (N’jameh Camara) is widely considered to be the prettier of the two. One day, Mister attempts to sexually assault Nettie while she is visiting Celie, but Nettie fights back, leading Mister to forbid the two sisters from ever seeing each other again. Celie fades into a life of abuse and despair until two women come into her life, each of whom helps her realize her own self-worth in different ways.
Sofia (Carrie Compere), is Mister’s son Harpo’s (J. Daughtry) girlfriend turned wife, and she teaches Celie that she does not need to accept physical abuse and can stand up for herself and fight back. Then there’s Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart), a jazz singer and longtime mistress of Mister who reminds Celie that she deserves pleasure and does not have to settle for unfulfilling relationships, both sexually and emotionally. Celie and Shug soon develop a deep, romantic connection, a feeling Celie has never experienced before. Through these positive experiences with other strong women in her life, Celie is able to pull herself out of a cycle of abuse and unhappiness and create a fulfilling new life for herself.
It feels like a breath of fresh air to have such a diverse, female-driven story on stage, and its messages serve as important reminders. Shows with multiple strong women at the center still feel few and far between, and it is even more rare to see said women lift each other up rather than be placed at odds with one another. When Celie sings “I’m Here,” the show-stopping eleven o’clock number, it feels like a battle cry for all oppressed women and minorities, and in today’s political climate it’s one everyone needs to hear.
With music and lyrics by Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell, and Allee Willis and a book by Marsha Norman, this particular production of The Color Purple does not add a lot to the already strong story. Directed by John Doyle, the set and staging are rather simple, and unfortunately some of the lyrics got a bit lost in the Pantages, a house where sound design often seems to be a struggle. Much of the plot is burned through by about the middle of act two, resulting in what feels like an abundance of wrap-up scenes, but this is balanced by the fact that these scenes contain the most memorable musical numbers. The music is generally a lot of fun, with Shug Avery’s raunchy “Push Da Button” and Sofia’s “Hell No” serving as standouts in addition, of course, to “I’m Here,” which is unparalleled within the show both in content and impact. It’s fitting that the slowest and least interesting moments of the musical occur when the male characters, most of whom are abominable human beings, are center stage.
The cast is excellent, led by Hicks, who sells Celie’s transformation from a timid girl with low self-esteem to a confident woman who has learned how to make the world work for her rather than allowing herself to be beaten down by the world. Stewart and Compere were also big hits with the audience, bringing strength and sassiness to the two most larger-than-life characters in the show. Sad as it may be that lessons taught by a show set a century ago are still necessary, The Color Purple is a musical that still deserves to be seen, and heard.
The Color Purple runs at the Hollywood Pantages through June 17th. The running time is two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased here. From June 19-24, the show will play the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. Those tickets start at $29 and can be purchased here.