“Make a joyful noise
A joyful noise!
Unto the Lord!”
So begins The Color Purple, with a clarion call from this exceptionally gifted ensemble functioning as a kind of revival meeting. And indeed—they do. While it would be fair to say that there are subtleties to Alice Walker’s beloved novel that this musical—in a sleek but rather abstract staging by director John Doyle—doesn’t quite capture, it’s not likely to trouble audiences held in the thrall of what is, on balance, an emotionally gripping, vocally resplendent night of theater.
The central story here revolves around Celie (Adrianna Hicks, in a deceptively quiet, ultimately powerful performance), a young black woman in the 1930s South with little education and few financial resources, but an extraordinary internal sense of resolve. Her inner strength will be made abundantly, gladdeningly clear by the show’s end, but the sometimes harrowing, sometimes funny adventures that help her get there take up most of the action—in particular, Celie’s relationships with two close friends: Shug, a glamorous singer (played here by Carla R. Stewart), and Sophia (Carrie Compere), a large woman brimming with personality. (Color Purple is a gratifyingly female-driven show.) Compere is especially terrific here—her big number, “Hell No!” is the first showstopper in an evening with several of them.
Marsha Norman’s book often masterfully compresses the action, but inevitably some things are lost or softened. I’m of two minds about Doyle’s production. It’s beautiful, elegant, streamlined—but is that what Color Purple really needs? Seen here, the show is more iconic than specific, and the central design idea—a stage filled with wooden chairs—suggests a metaphor that isn’t clear.
But any reservations are likely to vanish in the wash of talent and good-will that comes at you like a tidal wave. When Celie sings her anthemic final song, “I’m Here,” the audience—eager for good news on this election night—could barely contain themselves. Should you see Color Purple? Hell yes!
The Color Purple plays through December 17. For more information, visit the Broadway Philadelphia website.