Mind you, I don't really follow theater, broadway, musicals, off broadway, international shows and all of that as closely as some of my friends do. I believe it is for this reason that prior to seeing The Color Purple last Tuesday night, I had never heard of her. But what a great introduction to this fantastic woman and her amazing vocal instrument.
I have seen The Color Purple twice before when the show was touring and
stopped in Memphis, and I will say right now: I really enjoyed the show that ran back then more than I did this show. Just putting that out there, and I will get into why in a bit.
But first, let me gush a little more about Ms. Erivo. You see, at first I wasn't sure what to make of her. I have to reiterate, this was the first time I had ever heard of/ seen her. I'm simply not a musical theater buff. If I were, I would have known that Erivo has stared in Sister Act in London as Delores! Either way, over the next two hours I received the privilege of seeing this rising star perform. And didn't she perform!
Erivo had Celie down. From Somebody Gonna Love You to the various Dear God arrangements to Ms. Celie's Pants and I'm Here (both of the latter were absolute show stoppers) Erivo OWNED her part, and it was spectacular.
It would be unfair to go on and on about just one of the performers and not give everyone else props, though, so let me tell you a little more about the how I perceived the cast, and then about the production itself.
The role of Sophia requires such power, gusto, and umph. Augusta Georgia native Danielle Brooks delivers that umph and completely soars as Ms. Sophia. I thoroughly enjoyed her portrayal of the unapologetically, no nonsense, big, black woman who don't take no foolishness in her household type. Her wide range of ability in both voice and acting really delivered a believeable performance in a role that requires a special something that not just anybody has.
Kyle Scatliffe as Harpo was a fun choice. He had the child-like look, and was able to produce that Harpo-like charm that I have seen in the previous two productions of Purple. One of my favorite comedic moments in the show is when Squeak (Patrice Covington) confronts Sophia and gets knocked out. Harpo says "It's ok baby.... she beat me too!" Scatliffe delivers excellently, and had the crowd crying with laughter.
Isaiah Johnson as Mister was a fine choice as well. Johnson has the right swagger to gentelman ratio that it takes to pull off this good-for-nothing, trilin', makes me wanna hate men but the d too good turned born again do-gooder story arc that Mister goes through. A note about Johnson's acting: I usually gauge how well one does Mister by how sorry I feel for the man in the scenes after Celie curses him. All of the wrong that Johnson was able to portray made it difficult for me to sympathize for Mister when he was at his lowest points. That said, I didn't feel a lick of sorriness for Johnson's portrayal of Mister. Well done, sir!
Jennifer Hudson was there... as Shug.
Shoutout to the three church ladies! Excellent casting! Each one of those women looked like someone from my southern upbringing. Each one of those ladies looked like someone I knew from church. Each one of them was a person that either told me "no food in the sanctuary", "I know yo' daddy", or threatened to whip my ass. Seriously, though, Carrie Compere, Bre Jackson, and Rema Webb (see...? "Rema"... that just SOUNDS like a church lady name) worked together to portray that gossipy yet hilarious subculture of the black church. Loved it and loved them.
Though she's not there for most of the show, Nettie's character is pivotal to the plot and therefore deserves attention. Joaquina Kalukango nearly had me crying. Thanks, in large part to her ability to portray the long lost sister without saying a word, but also thanks, in part, to this show's interpretation of a few items. For one, Nettie was the mailbox that Celie was forbidden to check. Celie was always so close, yet so far away from her sister, and there she stood. Her messages personified by her human form. It was very touching and refreshing to see her thoughout the show, even if she didn't say as much as the others.
Now, there are two ways the rest of this post can go. Everything has been #BlackExcellence and rose colored glasses up until this point, but a real critique follows the sandwich method. You say something nice, something bad, and end it with something nice. Now, I can either talk about Jennifer Hudson, or I can talk about the production as it compares to the previous productions that I have seen.
You know what? Why not both?
Though, my thoughts on this production were concluded and dismissed very early on. I ended up telling myself "it is what it is, experience it and take it for exactly what it is." Upon sitting in my seat, I noticed that the stage was very open. No curtain. No set up. Just a bunch of chairs hanging from the wall, going up the length of the theater. A very artistic expression. The opening, which is an amazing display of the black church in the US, was very much simplified this time around, as opposed to previous productions in which people were running around, dancing, going on and off stage, etc. If I had to sum it up, I'd say that this production was more of a college art class's interpretation of The Color Purple on Broadway than your typical musical theater production. And while I have said (twice now) that I do not follow musical theater much (as this very streamlined approach might be a 'thing') I have seen The Color Purple musical twice, previously, and both of them were more developed in terms of production. I didn't like this approach, but it was what it was, and nothing can change that.
Jennifer Hudson, on the other hand, can change what she did, in terms of acting. Admittedly, I do not know how these things work, but I've been around long enough to know a few things. One of those things is the tactic of throwing a big name out there in hopes of getting people to come to your event. From the outside of the musical theater world, looking in, this seems to be the case with Jennifer Hudson and this production. This isn't even a matter of me liking someone else as Shug Avery "better" as much as it is me wanting Jennifer Hudson to act and not recite her lines as if she were sitting in an elementary literature class reading a play from a language arts book. Yes, it was that bad and I realized it at the show's main point: right before the title song The Color Purple.
At this point in the show, Celie is over life, love, and religion, saying that God is nothing but a low down dirty dog, an old man that doesn't give a damn about anything (or something to that effect). It's a very powerful moment displaying a woman who has lost all hope in life and humanity. Shug comes through to revive that spirit once again, saying that God isn't some old white man in the pictures that you see. God is inside each and everyone of us. She tries to cheer Celie up by saying something like "look around you at all of the great things god gives us.... laughing... sangin'..... SEX!", and it's the lines in this short monologue that usher in the entire meaning of this beautiful work.... Unfortunately, Hudson plows through the text like she's reading the dollar menu at McDonalds trying to figure out what she wants for lunch. I was so upset. Shug's monologue was lost on the audience completely.
But didn't she sang!? Yes. Hudson has an amazing voice. My inner circle of singer acquaintances often joke about the divas, both young and old, and every single time we get around to Jennifer Hudson, someone makes a "loud-soft-no in between" joke. And while I am also guilty of accusing Hudson of not being able to crescendo her way out of a paper bag to save her life, I must say: someone must have been doing some work with her lately, because she displayed a great range of color and emotion in her singing (but now can we get an acting coach?).