How can deprivation become joy? That’s not only the animating question of The Color Purple, the 1982 Alice Walker novel made into a musical in 2005, but also the operating principle behind John Doyle’s triumphant revival of that musical, starring the stupendous Cynthia Erivo in her Broadway debut. For once, the word “revival” is apt: Doyle’s intervention amounts to a kind of theatrical CPR, restarting the heart of a show that, in its original production, seemed to die before your eyes. It was difficult then to diagnose the underlying cause; the songs, by the trio of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, were unusually good, and Marsha Norman’s book made neat work of the difficult job of reshaping an epistolary text for the stage. The performances were fine. But something undermined those qualities, turning a story that was electrifying in print into a big, energy-sucking slog from which very little emotion could escape.
Now we can see that that the problem was a bad fit of content and style. Like the novel, to which it is mostly faithful, The Color Purple covers some 40 years in the life of a poor black woman named Celie, barely surviving in the Jim Crow South of the early 20th century. It is not, for most of the action, a happy life. Her stepfather rapes her and disposes of the resulting children; the husband to whom she is essentially sold (but only when a cow is thrown into the bargain) rapes her, too, though it’s called marriage. (As if to emphasize that the problem is systemic, Celie only knows him as “Mister.”) For all practical purposes she is a slave, any sense of self-determination or self-worth taken from her by a world that recapitulates, within the larger workings of racism, every form of subjugation it can get its hands on. Celie is not just black, but poor; not just poor but a woman; not just a woman but “ugly.” The small spark of a free self she manages to keep lit is fed by reflecting on the women who are her only solace: Nettie, her sister, who fled; Sophia, her step-daughter-in-law, who lets no man control her; and Shug Avery, a jazz singer, who simply turns her on. Eventually, taking something from the example of each of these three, she is reborn, overthrowing Mister, discovering her capacity for sexual love, and using her talents in a way that effects a tense rapprochement with the world.
A Broadway musical would not seem to be the ideal way to express Celie’s horrors, or to dramatize a protagonist who spends most of the story shut down. Songs offer too much direct pleasure, and performers are rarely discouraged from exploiting their natural desire to delight. The 2005 production overcompensated for the material by indulging those pleasures and tendencies: It was too loud, too bright, too engaged in a desperate form of salesmanship. Doyle, who directed a version of this revival for the Menier Chocolate Factory in London in 2013, was clearly not going to make the same mistake; he’s the man who brought us the stripped-down Sweeney Todd and Company, with actors playing their own instruments on minimal sets. But what was he up to? Consulting the script and the tune-stack of his new version, you might conclude not much: The songs and dialogue have been trimmed, and much of the dance music removed as fluff, but nothing of consequence has been eliminated. It is still, on paper, what we saw in 2005.
And yet, onstage, it’s nothing like that. Doyle begins his Color Purple, as he has often begun his shows, with the cast assembling and acknowledging our presence as they prepare to enact the story. The set, which he designed, is a simple construction of distressed wooden chairs suspended from a backdrop of distressed wooden boards. If this seems spartan and even random, it immediately signals that our attention will not be drawn to big huckesterish effects. The theatrical volume, so to speak, has been turned way down (as has the literal volume). Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are apt and appealing, but there aren’t hundreds of them; scene changes are indicated with some fabric or just lights; the birth of a child is staged with a simple story-theater conceit. Of course it takes actors who have the subtlety to work at this level, filling in the blanks that a fuller production might distract you from with sets and winks and all manner of overemphasis. (The original cast of 28 has been reduced to 17.) The paradoxical result is a far greater range; the show is not constantly hitting the ceiling. Erivo, who also starred in the London version, proves especially masterful at calibrating the gradations of Celie’s emergence, from a kind of dull curiosity when she meets Shug Avery, to the suppressed rage of her nascent rebellion against Mister, to the exquisite shy smile that breaks across her face when she allows herself to believe she is beautiful, to the full sunburst of pleasure that success (as a seamstress) finally affords her. By the time she gets to her 11 o’clock number — which, thanks to Doyle’s cuts, is really at about 10:25 — you may feel you have seen as great and full a transformation as any previously put on the musical stage.
You may feel that way about the show, as well. The Color Purple does still have its awkward elements: When the second act steps away from Celie, it loses focus and momentum; and the decision to allow Mister a greater slice of sympathy (and to dramatize it with a song that “explains” his evil) may strike fans of the novel as a Broadway watering-down. But Doyle’s production makes a better case for both of those choices than the earlier production did by grounding them in acting reality, and the actors, from Erivo on down, know how (or have been shown how) to make the most of the opportunity. The big name here is, of course, Jennifer Hudson, who brings surprising dramatic intelligence to Shug Avery’s own transformations and unsurprising vocal éclat to her clutch of terrific numbers. But Danielle Brooks (Taystee in Orange Is the New Black) is just as good as the indomitable Sophia, with a terrific seismic rumble of a voice, and Joaquina Kalukango (a lovely Cleopatra at the Public last year) makes of Nettie something fuller and stronger than the script seems to offer. (Is there a quartet of such powerful women’s roles in any other musical?) It’s also impressive that the leading male actors — Isaiah Johnson as Mister and Kyle Scatliffe as his ambivalent son, Harpo — are able to humanize what could be cartoons without scanting on their villainous and comic and, eventually, redemptive roles in the story.
I don’t mean to suggest that Doyle’s cut-the-crap style has reduced a big story to a small one or drained it of those pleasures that justify its being a musical in the first place. Rather, he has enlarged the effects and enhanced the pleasures by not aiming directly for them. Shug Avery’s dirty juke-joint number, “Push Da Button,” can be seen as merely a slam-dunk sexual-empowerment showstopper: “You want yo lady racin’ with you / You got to get her in gear.” But Doyle stages it for its thematic content, separating the women and the men in ways that clarify the lyrics and then bringing them together on equal terms. He gets the showstopper almost as a side effect.
In a similar way, he gets everything out of The Color Purple that anyone could have thought to put in it. And if it remains, as Walker wrote it, a rebirth story as gratifying as it is unlikely, this production — one of the best revivals ever — proves that sometimes gratifying and unlikely are really the same thing.
The Color Purple is at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.