Dallas — The touring production of The Color Purple, presented by Dallas Summer Musicals at the Music Hall at Fair Park, begins with a rumble and keeps pushing and sloping upward until it bursts open in the emotional finale. Glorious voices conducted by Darryl Archibald fill the space, reacquainting us with the characters we first met in Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Marsha Norman (book) and Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray (music and lyrics) created the musical voice for the story, which is adapted from the novel and the Warner Bros film. The musical first appeared on Broadway in 2005, and returned 10 years later, winning the 2016 Best Revival of a Musical Tony.
Director John Doyle’s staging of The Color Purple opens a simple space for the characters to show themselves. They engage the playing arena by walking through, peering around, and observing each other through tall latticed wooden panels. Hanging from the panels in staggered Magritte fashion are straight-backed chairs which the actors use to establish the environment. Lighting (Jane Cox) fills out the texture. Chairs come down, are used and then whisked away back to their hanging place, constantly in motion in a natural way.
Much has been made of Doyle’s stripping away of elements present during the original production. Indeed, original sections have disappeared, not the least of which are some of the musical numbers and dance routines. Costume (Ann Hould-Ward) changes are fewer. This whittling away of production values sharpens the focus on the actors and Walker’s original story.
We meet 14-year-old Celie (Adrianna Hicks) and her sister Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) as they are playing pattycake and singing “Huckleberry Pie” which segues into “Mysterious Ways.” Against the backdrop of this ensemble number we see Celie pregnant, scorned, abused, and in labor. Celie is forced to give up this child, as she had to with the first. It is also during this number that we first meet the three gossipy gussies as a Greek chorus—the Church Ladies: Angela Birchett, Bianca Horn, and Brit West. They are deliciously authentic.
This tour is a homecoming for Adrianna Hicks who began her musical theatre path in McKinney, Texas, graduating and eventually completing the musical theatre program at the University of Oklahoma. She has a powerful sound, but as importantly, she is lyrical and respectful of the words. There is no separation between her vocal prowess and her acting.
Celie’s father, Pa (J.D. Webster), makes a deal with a local farmer, Mister (Gavin Gregory), that if he marries Celie he will also receive a cow. Mister marries Celie and beats her daily for not being the love of his life, sensual nightclub singer, Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart). Nettie moves in with them to escape Pa. However, she had to run away to avoid Mister’s advances too, leaving Celie with alone and without support. After years of no contact, Celie assumes Nettie is dead.
One of the nice things that distinguishes the musical from the film is its emphasis on this character as a damaged being rather than the violence the damage generates. Gregory does a nice job of establishing those levels which strengthen the moment of redemption that comes later in the piece. It was important to Alice Walker that Mister be included in the family at the end, not ostracized as in the film.
Mister’s oldest son, Harpo (J. Daughtry) marries Sofia (Carrie Compere). Harpo learns the hard way that his wife is not like Celie and will not tolerate being hit. She beats him up and follows with her big number “Hell No!” They separate.
Sofia has such a huge presence in the story through her conversation with Celie about domestic violence. Compere quite easily handles the role, her voice matching the power her character has to physically exude. It would have been nice to see her have a little more time, pacing to sit even deeper into the number.
Following their separation, Harpo turns their house into a juke joint and starts an affair with a waitress, Squeak (Erica Durham). He hires Shug as the inaugural act for his business. The temperature is turned up a notch when Sofia arrives with new boyfriend in tow, Buster (Kyle E. Baird). Shug brings down the house with “Push da Button.” Such a fabulous well-staged number; they find that sweet spot between the wink and the literal.
Shug and Celie form an unexpected bond as Celie learns about love for the first time. The treatment of this relationship is more clarifying than in the film. “What About Love?” is their duet, a confirmation of Celie’s blooming sexual awareness. Stewart brings heft to the role while maintaining a balance with Hicks, staking claim to her character’s importance without pulling from Celie. Their voices are evenly matched during the duet, creating one of the show’s most emotional moments.
Shug has found the letters from Nettie that Mister has hidden from Celie all of these years. Celie reads them, learning Nettie is alive and living in Africa, and that through a twist of fate, Celie’s two children Adam (Darnell Abraham) and Olivia (Gabrielle Reid) are alive and living with her. Celie faces an array of disappointments and revelations, arriving at a place where she feels stronger and more complete in “I’m Here.” This is a difficult song with several levels of roller-coaster intensity. It is important because it represents Celie’s arrival into her complete self. Hicks’ rendition is flawless.
“The Color Purple” (reprise) closes the loop for these characters, soothing their bruises, reinforcing their journeys and celebrating their survival, and buttons Celie’s message of what Walker describes as “the possibility of our absolute freedom.” Celie stands triumphantly as proof of the lyric “Even the smallest voice can make a harmony.”