BWW Review: THE COLOR PURPLE Falls Short at Kennedy Center Despite Some Amazing Performances

BWW Review:  THE COLOR PURPLE Falls Short at Kennedy Center Despite Some Amazing Performances

While Marsha Norman's book and Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray's score remains intact, let's be clear that the current national tour of The Color Purple playing Kennedy Center is not the same one that you may have seen there in 2009. Based on Director John Doyle's much scaled down recent Tony Award-winning Broadway revival - which in turn is based on his production at London's Menier Chocolate Factory in 2013 - this production essentially places most of the focus on the music. Lucky for us, the cast is more than up to the task to delivering it, as is Darryl Archibald's small orchestra that is inexplicably not visible to the audience and never acknowledged. From the principal actors down to the ensemble, each cast member possesses a powerful voice that can deliver everything from a gospel or a jazz number to a R&B number or a traditional Broadway pop ballad in an emotionally affecting way.

Unfortunately, from a storytelling standpoint, this production exposes some of the weaknesses in Norman's book based on Alice Walker's novel and a film of the same name. This is largely because the minimalist physical production concept requires the audience to become invested in every word to follow what's happening. With this hyperfocus, it's easier to find the flaws in the sprawling story about facing adversity and surviving - and even thriving - in the worst of circumstances.

First and foremost, many of the characters - especially the men - are archetypes. All men are essentially evil villains and the females suffer in some way at their hands, although some more (or more often) than others. The actresses, especially Adrianna Hicks as Celie and Carla R. Stewart at Shug Avery, do well to deliver nuanced and transformative performances despite the heavy-handed writing. N'Jameh Camara as Nettie succeeds with this as well. Celie's relationship with Shug and with Nettie are central to the plot and they are portrayed in a believable and emotionally satisfying way here.

On the other hand, Carrie Compere embraces the heavy-handed writing as the loud, stubborn, and confident Sofia. Her Sofia stands in drastic contrast to many of the other women because she's not willing to accept any abuse - whether emotional or physical. While Compere takes a different approach from the rest of the cast (in part because her character is so different), you can't help but root for her as she sings "Hell No!" and ignore the fact that (as written) the character is a bit cartoonish.

In the end, thanks to the strength of the cast, I became emotionally invested in Celie and the other women's plights. The minimalist physical design, however, does not help the audience (or at least me) become invested in the story. In fact, oddly enough, it has the opposite effect. Doyle's set largely consists of multi-level wooden platforms and a wooden backdrop on which many chairs hang. The hardworking cast spends a good amount of time taking the chairs on and off the backdrop and arranging them onstage (other props include a few baskets and sheets). While there is some symbolic value (the chair is referenced in Celie's 11 o'clock number "I'm Here") the constant movement of the chairs is hugely distracting.

Doyle's 'less is more approach' to musical theater works in some instances - for example, the 2005 Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd - but I am not so sure it brings out the best of this musical work. Here, it just exposes many of the flaws I didn't notice in the original Broadway production and again on tour. Still, the cast succeeds in nearly every way and deserves every praise.

Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission

THE COLOR PURPLE plays the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater - 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC - through August 26, 2018. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or purchase them online.

Photo: Adrianna Hicks (Celie) and N'Jameh Camara (Nettie) and the North American tour cast of THE COLOR PURPLE. By Matthew Murphy, 2017.

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From This Author Jennifer Perry

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