Like a stone sent skipping across a pond, the musical version of "The Color Purple" frenetically skims the surface of Alice Walker's bestseller -- and then sinks under the weight of its own worthiness. Earnest and eager to please, the $10 million show is the latest in a long series of cautious, pricey Broadway adaptations that paint by pallid numbers rather than in arresting new tones.
It's a thankless task, though, making the argument against this musical, which opened last night at the Broadway Theatre. Will audiences care that the score, sung with such unassailable commitment, is all generic gospel, blues and pop? Or that the travails of the Dickensian heroine, played with plucky indefatigability by the actress LaChanze, push the most over-exercised of emotional buttons?
No, my bet is that many people will be content with the comforting glow of familiar sights, sounds and feelings. In Pavlovian fashion, they'll respond to a song such as "Hell No!," in which the musical's most winning actor -- Felicia P. Fields, as the infectiously ferocious Sofia -- croons her defiance of any brute with a mean streak: "If a man / Raise his hand / Hell no! / Hell no!" They will well up as if by rote, too, when late in the evening, LaChanze's silver-maned Celie is at long last reunited with the children stolen from her in her adolescence.
And how bad could it be, anyway, if Oprah Winfrey thinks it's cool? The blessing by America's reigning queen of good karma, who opened her heart and her wallet to the show, significantly raised the profile of "The Color Purple" and filled its coffers: 2 million smackers flowed into the box office immediately after the cast appeared on Oprah's show. The musical, for which Winfrey signed on as a lead producer late in its development, holds more than $10 million in advance ticket sales.
Musical theater gets a boost when a publicity beacon such as Winfrey takes an interest. So it's hard to resist rooting for her and material about which she feels so strongly; she was, you'll recall, one of the stars of Steven Spielberg's 1985 movie adaptation, and she received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of big, stiff-necked Sofia, whose spirit is extinguished after being beaten and beaten again for standing up to the white establishment in a backwoods Georgia town.
In this case, however, Winfrey's cause is resistible: a plot-heavy show with a relentless pace -- it's as busy as a turnstile at rush hour -- that is at odds with the laconic rhythms of the rural South it evokes. The director, Gary Griffin, appears to have taken on the duties of efficiency expert, his eye forever on a stopwatch. His worry seems to be getting through heaps and heaps of narrative. It isn't until late in the first act, after the entrance into Celie's life of the sultry blues singer Shug Avery (Elisabeth Withers-Mendes) that a song is allowed to breathe, the juke-joint production number "Push da Button." Before that, it's pretty much one frustratingly brisk song fragment after another.
An audience, as a result, gets little opportunity to live with these characters. When you're not allowed to savor, what happens to the flavor? In some small way, the problem might have been apparent to Winfrey. The Los Angeles Times reported that after watching a recent run-through, the talk-show host offered one suggestion: that Fields hold the final note of "Hell No!" a little bit longer.
The idea, to be sure, is that we are supposed to dearly love poor Celie, who is raped by her hideous stepfather (J.C. Montgomery) and then handed over to the malignant old Mister (Kingsley Leggs) for a marriage of abject indignity and servitude. The pathos is provided by her enforced separation from her beloved sister, Nettie (Renee Elise Goldsberry), and the comedy comes from the bond between hardened Sofia and her sweeter better half, Mister's son Harpo (an effective Brandon Victor Dixon).
Nettie disappears with a missionary couple to Africa, which gives the show the excuse for a "Lion King"-style dance number, and Celie the opportunity to pine and dream and pine some more. Her suffering is mitigated by the arrival of Mister's ex-flame, Shug, who stirs in Celie a passion she's never felt. (Did I mention that there's a lot of plot?) Celie's hopes rise and fade and rise again. (Turns out she's got a knack for designing slacks.)
In book writer Marsha Norman's conjuring, however, LaChanze and Celie never quite achieve the emotionally resonant transformation from victim to victor. Her emergence remains a rather minor triumph. More satisfying is the arc of a supporting character, Sofia, and you wish the musical somehow could be hers. "Purple's" creators reveal some ambivalence on this issue, giving Sofia and Harpo a delightful, sexually charged number, "Any Little Thing," at a crucial moment so late in the proceedings that it feels as if the writers, too, might have preferred a show about them.
The music and lyrics, by pop-rock songsmiths Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray -- who've written, separately, for the likes of Sting, Madonna and Earth, Wind & Fire -- have the utilitarian quality of committee work.
Although a Greek chorus of local busybodies (Kimberly Ann Harris, Virginia Ann Woodruff and Maia Nkenge Wilson) is irritatingly overused, the cast exudes a uniform vocal dynamism.
The actors' collective spirit is an enormous asset. Too bad we never feel as much about the people they play.
The Color Purple, book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray. Directed by Gary Griffin. Choreography, Donald Byrd; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Jon Weston. With Krisha Marcano, Lou Myers. About 2 hours, 40 minutes. At Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.