Adrianna Hicks and company in Paper Mill Playhouse’s ‘The Color Purple.’ (Photo Jerry Dalia)
By Bobby McGuire
As musicals go, consider The Color Purple a perpetual work in progress that learns from its mistakes and gets better with age. Its debut in 2005 as a bloated mega-musical left audiences scratching their heads over its odd use of mixed theatrical styles. Its recent return to Broadway (by way of London’s Menier Chocolate Factory) was a distilled improvement over the original thanks to spotless direction by Brit John Doyle. But despite a powerhouse Tony Award-winning performance by Cynthia Erivo, the 2.0 version ultimately proved to be a sexless affair.
Call it a case of “the third time is the charm.” As presented on the boards at Paper Mill Playhouse, Mr. Doyle’s vision is back — only this time, slightly larger, a little more emotional and a whole lot gayer.
Faithfully based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple tells the story of Celie (a superb Adrianna Hicks), an African American woman living in rural Georgia in the early 20th century. Raped by her stepfather and forced to give her infant children up for adoption, Celie is married off to the brutal “Mister,” (Gavin Gregory in a layered turn) who beats her, works her like a slave and separates her from her beloved sister, Nettie (N’Jameh Camara).
An oasis in Celie’s misery is briefly found through her friendship with the strong and stubborn-minded Sofia (Carrie Compere), wife to Mister’s bullied son, Harpo. Celie’s sense of self-worth awakens after she is coerced to play nursemaid to her husband’s mistress, the heavy drinking jazz singer Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart). Their unlikely friendship grows into a romance, which frees Celie from the bondage of marriage and ultimately gives her the strength to stand on her own.
It was with the Celie/Shug relationship that Doyle’s otherwise superb Broadway production fell flat. As Shug, Jennifer Hudson proved to be not much of a stage actress. And despite a valiant effort, Ms. Erivo was able to barely muster a modicum of sexual chemistry with her Academy Award-winning co-star.
On stage at Milburn, this isn’t an issue. Ms. Hicks and Ms. Stewart deftly maneuver the complexities of Celie and Shug’s relationship from friends to sisters to lovers and ultimately exes. All the warmth, kinship, jealousy and passion that was missing from the film version and previous stage incarnations are finally present. Its effect on the show as a whole is nothing short of revelatory.
As the protagonist, Celie, Ms. Hicks effortlessly carries the show from downbeat to curtain. A veteran of the Broadway production and national tour, she breathes genuine life into the heroine. And although she lacks Enrivo’s vocal pyrotechnics, she more than makes up for it by bravely playing with the less powerful aspects of her instrument for dramatic impact.
Gavin Gregory brings layers to the brutish Mister. It’s one of this production’s surprising pleasures watching him grow from bully to cuckold to unlikely friend. Similarly, it is a joy to watch Ms. Stewart take Shug from belligerent boozehound to sexually free modern woman.
The production benefits by having numerous veterans of the Broadway and national tour companies on-hand. Theatergoers familiar with the Broadway revival will experience a sense of deja vu seeing Mr. Doyle’s staging recreated on the set of stacked kitchen chairs (also designed by Doyle). And the Grammy Award-winning score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray is always a joy to listen to.
Having recently been revived 20 miles away on Broadway, it may seem an odd choice for Paper Mill Playhouse to pick The Color Purple as its 80th season opener. Conventional logic would say that a good portion of the savvy group of North Jersey theatergoers who make up Paper Mill’s audience would have already seen it. The timing, however, couldn’t be better. In the year of #MeToo and after a few weeks of Brett Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS drama, it’s refreshing to see a woman come out on top — if only on stage.
Bobby McGuire is the backstage veteran of nine Broadway shows and national tours. His post-showbiz life led him to work for Ogilvy and Mather, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and EDGE Media Network. He resides in Manhattan with two roommates and a Maltese named Nero.