Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple might not seem like an obvious choice to adapt into a splashy musical, but the touring Broadway production at the Mahalia Jackson Theater recently offered rocking good entertainment.
Set in rural Georgia in the 1930s, the story centers on Celie (Dayna Dantzler), a 14-year-old girl who has been raped by her Pa (Mark Hall) and becomes pregnant. He takes the baby from her, and she fears he's murdered the infant. Celie's Pa is a rough, mean character, as are most of the men in the story, while the women tend to be more vulnerable and feeling creatures.
Pa fobs off Celie to Albert, who is attracted to Celie's sister Nettie. Albert treats Celie like a slave, and she becomes a Cinderella figure — minus the fairy godmother, Prince Charming and glass slipper.
"The Lord works in mysterious ways" one of the gospel-based songs informs us, and so does the script of The Color Purple, which twists through many subplots. Nettie is not dead as Celie supposes, but alive and well in Africa, where she was taken by a missionary couple, along with Celie's two children.
This crucial revelation comes from Shug Avery, a former lover of Albert's. Avery is a blues singer and sets off a minor bacchanal at the local juke joint when she launches into a raunchy, double entendre number called "Push Da Button." The blues diva was sensitively played by New Orleans-born and NOCCA-trained actress Taprena Augustine.
Avery, who dazzles everyone with her beauty, and Celie, who is continually berated as ugly, form an intimate bond. Avery discovers Albert has been intercepting and hiding Nettie's letters to Celie. The news of Nettie's life is accompanied by African dance numbers that seem like a cross between exotic rites and the pseudo-street rumbles of West Side Story. The dancing, like the singing, was excellent and stood out imaginatively in the lighter, freer moments.
Despite the grim opening scenes and the story's many horrors, the sun emerges in the final scene and shines happily on a picnic gathering in which all parties are reunited and mutually forgiven. The resolution may not be convincing, but it fits a big Broadway musical. — Dalt Wonk