By Daniel Skora
“The Color Purple” is currently appearing at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre on one of but many stops of its post-Broadway National Tour. The show, a 2016 Tony Award winner for Best Revival of a Musical, is based on the Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name.
The story revolves around the lives of several interconnected African Americans living in rural Georgia, meandering through four decades of the first half of the twentieth century. Celie (Adrianna Hicks) is a young teenager who’s already borne one child and is about to have another. Her children are the result of repeated rapes by a man believed to be her father. Both children are taken from her and given away.
Celie herself gets separated from Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) the sister she loves dearly. She’s given in marriage to a man called Mister (Gavin Gregory) who is cruel and abusive and continually mistreats her. Mister showers all his favors on his mistress, a singer/entertainer named Shug (Carla R. Stewart). Shug, however, serves as a mentor to Celie after Mister takes her into his house. She helps Celie to become an independent woman, much like the supremely confident Sofia (Carrie Compere), who’s married to Mister’s son Harpo (J. Daughtry).
“The Color Purple” is first and foremost a story of the trials and tribulations of African American women. If you’re unfamiliar with the book, its subsequent movie, or the musical, you’ll find it disturbing, inspirational, even at times sensual. You’ll also find it immensely entertaining as the story takes its principal characters from despair to joy.
The music is a mix of gospel, blues, and jazz, and the soaring vocals of Hicks and others in the cast highlight the show’s many emotional ballads. The most visually exciting number is “Push Da Button” in which the more modest of the women characters are encouraged to experience the pleasures to be had by engaging in sexual hijinks.
This current reincarnation of “The Color Purple” may be a stripped down version of any that came before, but it lacks naught in entertainment value and loyalty to the story’s intentions. The set, design by John Doyle, is simple yet effective. Four dozen or so wooden chairs, the kind that grandma used to have in her parlor or around the kitchen table, hang from a background of rough wooden slats that stretch to the ceiling. The chairs are also used in various ways as props, and though they’re all very similar in construction, you’d be hard pressed to find any two that are exactly alike.
A special treat on opening night was seeing Allee Willis, one of the show’s three musical composer/lyricists (along with Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray) in attendance. Ms. Willis, famously known as The Queen of Kitsch for her vast collection of artistically unappreciated yet popular and eye-catching objets d’art, was nattily attired in a kind of giraffe-skin/camouflage patterned suit with complimentary sneakers. A pleasant distraction for this reviewer sitting across the aisle from her was watching those sneakers tapping out the show’s melodies. If you’re unfamiliar with Allee Willis, get acquainted with this most interesting and delightful woman (and her collections) by checking out one of her many videos on YouTube.
Book for “The Color Purple” is by Marsha Norman, costumes by Ann Hould-Ward. Music is directed and conducted by Darryl Archibald. The show’s very short run ends on November 12th. Tickets are available at the Fisher Theatre Box Office, all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 1.800.982.2787, and online at www.BroadwayinDetroit.com or www.TicketMaster.com.