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The Big O

Winfrey's Empowering Message All Over Musical Version of The Color Purple

SISTERLY TALK: Felicia P. Fields (in hat) socks it to Stephanie St. James

By John Barry | Posted 5/14/2008

The Color Purple

By Alice Walker, adapted for the stage by Marsha Norman

At the Hippodrome Theatre through May 18

Keith Gessen refers to Joseph Stalin as "Oprah with a gun" in a May 4 book review in The New York Times. That may sound like a stretch, but after watching The Color Purple--or, rather, Oprah Winfrey Presents The Color Purple--it's not hard to see this vision of America's benevolent cultural avatar. With some energetic reworking, Alice Walker's epistolary novel of cultural and sexual estrangement has been transformed into a rousing you-go-girl musical. Not only did Winfrey get nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in Steven Spielberg's 1985 movie adaptation, but she funded this touring musical version--which may, eventually, get turned back into a movie of the musical. And, in this highly successful production at the Hippodrome, she's got Alice Walker on a roll.

The story offers a bleak picture of the Depression-era South, replete with lynching, incest, baby-killing, Jim Crow, and, from farther off, the Harlem Renaissance and the back-to-Africa movement. The central character and narrator of the novel is Celie, a young woman who is struggling in a culture and a family that refuses to allow her self-worth.

While the musical version doesn't completely ignore the ugliness, it sacrifices much of this backdrop for a celebration of feminine persistence in the face of great odds. The musical offers the book's multilayered plot in dense, sometimes difficult to understand spurts, but this Color Purple is about a young girl's search for self, in which she grows, slowly, from a shrinking violet into a powerful female entrepreneur who, without anyone noticing, not only becomes rich but also gets her own brand name.

The opening song, "Mysterious Ways," introduces a churchgoing community where gossip and gospel proliferate. There, as the preacher, actor Trent Armand Kendall shines. What follows is one of the book's heartbreak moments: Celie's father takes her children (we assume he's sired them) from her grip. The pathos in the musical doesn't really sink in; it looks more like she's handing off a football.

Meanwhile, Celie is shunted off to a man, "Mr.--" (Rufus Bonds Jr.), one of the more dramatically complex characters in the production. He's Celie's husband, who comes off as a humorous, if grumpy, man who may be a wife beater, and who is also head-over-heels in love with jazz singer Shug Avery (Angela Robinson). The musical gains energy as Avery comes to town, and Robinson shines as a domineering but good-natured woman of pleasure. The gospel of sexual liberation that she spreads is admirably choreographed by Donald Byrd in "Push da Button."

Celie--at least in the book--was never meant to be a stage presence, but Jeannette Bayardelle does what she can to turn her into an appealing character with a streak of mischievous humor. In a confident performance, Bayardelle may improve on the original; her character's self-effacement becomes an extended, carefully modulated buildup to her belting out the final tour de force, "I'm Here," in her sudden moment of self-empowerment. That brought down the house, as it probably does every night, but Bayardelle makes the subdued Celie appealing in her own ironically tinged way.

The real crowd-pleaser in the cast is Felicia Fields, who also played in the original Broadway version, as Sofia. It's easy to see why she's stuck to the role of a pugnacious woman with a good right hook. "Hell No" is her signature song, and it turns her into the show's driving force. While she decks her husband, Harpo (well played by Rhett George), convincingly, she's less lucky with the white wife of the mayor. But, in the end, she's resilient and appears to be Celie's primary inspiration.

Still, The Color Purple wasn't meant to be a musical. But somehow, writer Marsha Norman has done what she can to turn this novel into a raucous, full-tilt musical that, somewhat predictably, hits on the most empowering sentiments. Shunting aside the book's aura of isolation and separation, this is a joyful, and enjoyable, tribute to a woman who makes it on her own terms, creates her own corporation, and shapes her culture.

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