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Redemption, via 'Purple's' prose

December 18, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

"The Color Purple," Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel, is all about liberating black female voices from the shackles of racial and gender oppression. And the good news about the otherwise forgettable touring Broadway musical version, which opened Sunday at the Ahmanson Theatre, is that it provides an opportunity for the gospel recording artist Jeannette Bayardelle to showcase her sumptuous, tidal-wave vocals as Celie. For those who haven't read the book or seen Steven Spielberg's 1985 movie, Celie is the young Job-like protagonist who endures every imaginable hardship on her way to the kind of assured spiritual enlightenment that Oprah Winfrey has made her lucrative stock in trade.

Winfrey, of course, is not just one of the show's producers but a crucial advertising presence ("Oprah Winfrey presents" is part of the billing). Let's just hope that no one from Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign was in attendance on opening night. The spectacle at the Ahmanson would no doubt have been even more rattling than the latest poll numbers coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire. If Winfrey's name can help turn this overstuffed mediocrity into a sea-to-shining-sea blockbuster, then President Obama might not be as far-fetched a notion as it appeared a few weeks ago.

In many ways, "The Color Purple" is an appropriate way to bring this annus horribilis of the American musical to a close. The show, which premiered on Broadway in 2005, was redeemed from the start by the glorious female performers who graced its cast. And this year's musical clunkers -- too numerous to mention -- also were made tolerable by the quality of acting and singing, which invariably outstripped the writing and composing that gave rise to them.

The ensemble at the Ahmanson is hardly stellar across the board, though fans of Destiny's Child will be excited to learn that Michelle Williams plays Shug Avery, the honky-tonk singer whom everyone, including Celie, is more than a little bewitched by. Shug, short for "sugar," is a role that's intended to electrify. A strutting, simmering vamp, the woman is like a spritz of cheap perfume that ensnares its amorous prey through obviousness rather than stealth.

Williams, a lithe presence with a medium-sized R&B voice, handles the demands of the accessible score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, which mixes and matches styles of African American music in an easy-listening mode. But the scenes with Shug never detonate the way you'd hope, and the character's irresistible charm is a narrative given, rather than a theatrical fact.

What prevents "The Color Purple" from being the musical for the ages that it clearly would like to be, however, is Marsha Norman's book, which distills the novel's busy plot into a two-act structure that becomes a real slog in the second half.

How to begin recapping a tale so exhaustingly eventful that Shakespeare and Dickens might throw up white flags? Early on, when we encounter Celie as a 14-year-old girl living in Georgia in the early years of the 20th century, she's pregnant by the man she thinks is her father (Quentin Earl Darrington). Forced to give up her second baby by him, she's eventually palmed off on Mister (Rufus Bonds Jr.), an abusive tyrant who'd rather take her younger and supposedly prettier sister, Nettie (who's played with impressive restraint by "American Idol" alum LaToya London).

Celie's new life as the caretaker of Mister's house and children is one of drudgery compounded by misery. And the bad dream only gets worse after Mister unsuccessfully tries to have his way with Nettie and end up throwing Celie's dignified sister off his property, where she has sought sanctuary from her rapist father.

The rest of the epic revolves around Celie's rising sense of independent womanhood, a slow and painful dawning of consciousness that's nurtured by the strong female presences around her, excluding, of course, the chorus of busybody church ladies.

Sofia (Felicia P. Fields reprising her Tony-nominated performance in the role Winfrey took on in the film) is a plus-size lesson in the enormous strength that resides in a woman who has decided not to allow herself to be bullied by men anymore. When Sofia lustily walks onstage, her astonishingly full-figured character fleshed out even more with pregnancy, Celie can hardly believe her eyes. She's never seen anything this big and bold and unbowed before.

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