Rereviewed: She Loves Me Onscreen, The Color Purple Recast

Now available on your computer screen. Photo: Joan Marcus

The theater is a hothouse; everything grown within it is exotic, demanding, and sensitive to minute fluctuations of environment. Even with only time as a variable, a show is always reaching and reconfiguring, deepening and dying. Bigger variables, such as the one She Loves Me gambled on last night when, in a Broadway first, it was streamed live over the internet, may be a boon or a trial — or, as in this case, a bit of both.

She Loves Me, often called a “jewel box” anyway, was in Scott Ellis’s revival (which I enjoyed in March) more of a Fabergé egg, lovely but threatening to lose its balance. David Rockwell’s set (one of the few non-Hamilton Tony-winners last month) literalized that image when, after a brief prologue, the exterior of Maraczek’s Parfumerie opened up to reveal its Art Nouveau interiors. Onscreen last night, this stage magic underwhelmed; there is no camera angle that could have re-created the effect, and certainly David Horn, the livestream’s director, tried every one he could. (Ten cameras recorded the show.) A lot else was lost in translation, largely because the production was not reblocked for the shoot. When leading man Zachary Levi dashed (and at one point did cartwheels) across the stage, or when Jane Krakowski and Gavin Creel performed their rumba, Horn had to keep cutting distractingly from camera to camera just to keep them in frame. Pans didn’t seem to work.

For the most part, the performances were not recalibrated either; the cast, after all, was simultaneously entertaining the live-theater audience at Studio 54, where the show continues its run until July 10. For the first hour, nearly everyone seemed too broad. (There were also technical problems at the beginning, at least on my computer screen, which kept buffering and informing me unhelpfully of an “Invalid Content Segment.”) The technique necessary to project even the gently drawn characters of a romantic comedy set in Budapest in 1934 can look awfully strange close up, let alone the technique necessary to project the astonishing Bock and Harnick score. Laura Benanti, who as the lonely-hearts-club fantasist Amalia has most of the vocal heavy-lifting, sounded gorgeous but nervous in her first numbers. The miking seemed to catch her in too many of the weird soprano pronunciations that make each word clear in a 920-seat house but come off as arch a few inches from a laptop screen. Similarly, the musical staging often looked overbusy in tight shots or diffuse in wide ones, and even the vivid colors of the sets and costumes sometimes read as flat and garish. In a strange (and unsuccessful) acknowledgement of these translation issues, Horn cut at one point to a stagehand, in the flies, releasing snow onto the stage below. He was way too real.   

None of this neither-fish-nor-fowlism was fatal, though. It took longer for the show’s almost perfect theatrical charm to warm up the cameras, but eventually it did overcome the cool medium’s resistance. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was Levi, a television star, who made it across the barrier first, followed by Krakowski, Creel, Benanti, and then the rest. By the middle of the second act, when the threads of the plot tighten so satisfyingly, the nearness of the cameras to the actors’ faces added instead of subtracted, and the show made its usual leap to joy.

* * *

It doesn’t take a change of medium to completely reconfigure a show; a single cast replacement can make as big a difference. When The Color Purple opened in December I called it one of the best revivals ever. With Heather Headley taking over the crucial role of Shug Avery from Jennifer Hudson, who left the production in May, it is even better. Hudson was apparently unhappy; perhaps she was cowed by the titanic (and Tony-winning) Cynthia Erivo or nervous in her Broadway debut. Headley is neither of those things. (She won a 2000 Tony in the title role of Disney’s Aida.) Her interpretation of the louche blues singer with Sapphic possibilities is highly idiosyncratic but as electrically alive as Erivo’s take on the shut-down Celie, a contrast that pays off every second they are together. Headley really searches Erivo’s eyes when talking to her; Hudson seemed skittish about it. And if the lesbian elements of the story are still slightly effaced — the kiss between the women is less sexual than super-friendly — the emotional connection more than makes up for it. And of course Headley sings fabulously, getting all the dirt out of a number like “Push Da Button” without sacrificing musicality.

The rest of the show holds up, too, even though some of the understudies who performed on the night I attended were not yet excelling. And perhaps Danielle Brooks, delicious as the unbridleable Sophia, is having a bit too much fun at this point. (She certainly gets her laughs, though.) The real question about this revival is whether it depends on Erivo so much that the producers will not be able to replace her; I don’t suggest you wait to find out.

The She Loves Me livestream is available at through July 7. After that it will be edited and returned to the site’s library permanently.
The Color Purple is at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.