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'Color Purple' suits Fantasia

Filling a Tony winner's shoes in the role of Celie, the 'Idol' champ has revitalized this Broadway show.

August 25, 2007|Nekesa Mumbi Moody | Associated Press

NEW YORK -- After it was announced that Fantasia would take over the lead role in the Broadway musical "The Color Purple," she recalls her costars as being warm, friendly and supportive. Still, she knew in the back of their minds that they had doubt about her casting.

Perhaps for good reason. The former "American Idol" champ was taking over for LaChanze, who won a Tony for her portrayal of the downtrodden Celie, and the 23-year-old's acting experience had been limited to a saccharine Lifetime TV biopic in which she played herself -- not exactly the most challenging of roles.

And then there was the whole celebrity factor that's permeated Broadway in recent years -- putting stars such as Usher, Brooke Shields, Deborah Gibson and other assorted A- to D-listers in stagnant productions to boost the box office.

"A lot of times they give us hard times, and they say, 'They're bringing in such and such on Broadway just to bring in money because they probably ain't gonna do so good because they haven't been acting all their life,' " Fantasia says.

That made her even more determined.

"I was like, 'I have to go in here and do my best for them. It's not only me, but it's a whole cast who's been doing it for two years, and I have to hold the show up so that we will have a good show,' " she explains.

Since her arrival in April, she has done more than hold up the show. She's revitalized it. Fantasia has received rave reviews, boosted a box office that had started to slump and, some say, improved a successful commercial production that was lacking critically.

Michael Kuchwara, the Associated Press' drama critic, said Fantasia "gives the production new heart, soul and star power." And the New York Times called her "so terrific that this earnest but mechanical musical is more effective and affecting than it was when it yawned open a year and a half ago at the Broadway Theater."

"I think she's clearly given the show a new burst of energy that everyone is enjoying the benefit of," says Scott Sanders, one of the show's producers.

"When you bring in someone who is a household name, it brings out the cynics who think that it is just stunt casting and those who actually understand that she is a very talented woman who is going to take a big leap. . . . It's turned out to be an incredible win for everyone."

But it hasn't come without sacrifice for Fantasia. A few hours before show time, the doe-eyed singer, clad in sweats with her hair closely cropped, lounges in her Midtown apartment, looking weary -- far from her usual animated, gregarious self. As she walks around gingerly, she blurts out: "This show is kicking my butt!"

Part of what makes her so tired is the grueling schedule. She performs eight times a week and is onstage almost the entire production, singing with such a fiery passion that you get exhausted just watching her. After curtain calls and on her days off, she sleeps, sleeps and sleeps:

"I ain't never heard the sleep word so much in my life until I got on Broadway," she says with a laugh. "I'm so tired -- mentally tired, physically tired."

The content of the show has also drained her.

"Miss Celie takes a lot of out of me," Fantasia says in her soft, raspy Southern drawl, in between bites of a light lunch. "I'm being told everyday that I'm ugly. . . . You can't play the part if you don't kind of put yourself in her shoes and live her life. So it's like, I carry that stuff with me."

It's easy to see why Fantasia can't shake some of Celie's blues. In many ways, she shares parallels to the famously put-upon character who originated in Alice Walker's acclaimed book. Like Celie, Fantasia has lacked in education (she quit in high school), had a baby in her teens and suffered sexual abuse (Fantasia says she was raped by a classmate).

"I put myself in her shoes in having [daughter] Zion at such a young age and dropping out of school and being in just bad relationships and disrespected," she says.

Still, even though she could identify with Celie, Fantasia wondered if she was the right person to take on the emotionally complex character, who goes through several decades and transformations by show's end.

"What makes them think that I can do that?" she recalls asking herself once she saw the show.

For Sanders and Oprah Winfrey, the show's most prominent producer, it wasn't that hard to imagine. Sanders recalls watching Fantasia's emotive rendition of "Summertime" on "American Idol" -- a song she never knew until it was assigned to her on the TV show. She made the Gershwin classic her signature.

"I had a hunch that because of her rawness in her ability to catch material and deliver it, in such a profound and powerful way, if she could get inside the character of Celie, or let Celie get inside of her, that this could be a really unique opportunity for everyone," he says."

Since she's been on Broadway, she's had a lot of people coming up to her crying, telling her how her portrayal of Celie has moved them, even helped them make a change in their own lives. Such testimonies made Fantasia hold on to Celie a bit longer than she had planned; she extended her run by four months, until January.

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