Opening night of The Color Purple was a celebration of Black excellence, as a joyful sound rang clear and true through Boston’s Boch Center Shubert Theater. The touring revival of the musical version of Alice Walker’s award-winning 1982 novel is filled with powerful performances that laud the strength of the rural Black women the story centers on, and tells their tales of hardship and determination with soulful pieces that will have you laughing, crying, and signifying in your seat.
The story revolves around Celie, a young black girl living in Georgia with her abusive father. Her sister, Nettie, is her only company. She is bright and pretty, while Celie has only been told that she is dumb and ugly. When Celie sacrifices herself to be the wife to the cruel man known only as Mister so that Nettie can escape that fate, she finds herself entwined in the lives of other Black women who demonstrate a strength and resilience that feeds her own growth. The book was written by Marsha Norman, with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. Instead of the letters that Celie writes in the original novel, the musical shares her journey through personal vignettes and the storytelling of others.
In her portrayal of Celie, Adrianna Hicks’ gives us a 180 degree transformation over the course of the musical in not only character development but vocal range. The restrained and monotone Celie of the first act is endearing to no end to all women that meet her, even her own husband’s lover Shug Avery (a touching, then raunchy, then touching performance by Carla R. Stewart). Hicks is able to melt into the set and still have your eyes trained on her, with an ear towards her deadpan delivery that reflects a beat down soul. Her growth into a belting, confident heroine by the second act is natural and engaging, with a vocal command that rings clear to the rafters.
But the real showstopper is Carrie Compere’s take on Sofia, the strong and unapologetic wife of Mister’s son Harpo (J. Daughtry). From the moment she steps on stage, electricity runs through the crowd. In her song with the company “Hell No!” the audience whooped and cheered as she growled out the powerful lyrics “Oh, you better learn how to fight back/ While you still alive/ You show him girls can beat back that jive”. Even when beaten down at the behest of the mayor for her insubordination, her strength is undeniable. Compere’s duet with Daughtry also brought down the house as they toyed and teased during the playful “Any Little Thing”.
Though Daughtry is certainly gifted in voice and comedy, Gavin Gregory’s Mister is the standout performance on the men’s side, both in baritone and stage presence. Male-heavy numbers like “Big Dog” and “Shug Avery is Comin’ to Town” showcase that even though this musical is designed to have the women shine, the men are a force when they hit the stage. There are moments here and there where high notes in particular turn sharp, and lines are lost in an over-emphasis of character (for example, though several of Squeak’s lines were almost unintelligible the gist was clear) but it adds to the rawness rather than detracts from the polish. Church Ladies Angela Birchett, Bianca Horn, and Brit West were alone in having flawless vocal blending whenever they came together to gossip about the happenings of each family. Their time on stage was always a welcome boost.
This show is a very sleek production in terms of design. With a backdrop of common wooden chairs that also serve as the major props and a creaking wooden stage that at times seems to double as musical accompaniment, there is little to distract from the excellent performances on stage. Given that the novel centers on the difficult lives of an array of poor and uneducated Black women in the early 1900s, this makes far more sense than the original overdressed production from the first time the story hit the stage. The period costuming is muted browns, yellows, and blues which allows for an injection of life through brightly colored costume changes as the story picks up, like Shug Avery’s hot pink flapper dress, the second act’s confident use of sunny primary colors in Celie’s clothing business, and beautiful tribal prints that illustrate Nettie’s work in Africa.
The heart-wrenching but uplifting ending song “I’m Here” is a beautiful piece demonstrating the range of not only Hicks’ voice but the journey of Celie to find the peace and the place that makes her happiest. If you are lucky enough to be in a town that The Color Purple comes through, I can guarantee with absolute certainty that your happiest place will be a seat in that theater.
The Color Purple runs through December 3rd at Boston’s Shubert Theatre
For ticket information, click HERE