The phrase “toast of the town” used to be bandied freely up and down the streets of Broadway — so much so that CBS used it as the title of a Sunday night variety hour that eventually became The Ed Sullivan Show. The description was almost always applied in the early morning to someone who’d opened the previous night to an unexpected ovation — rarely a standing one in those times — in a Broadway production.
If the phrase were still in vogue, we’d apply it now to Cynthia Erivo, who’s playing Celie in the revival of The Color Purple that’s arrived at the Jacobs Theatre courtesy of an enhanced production from London’s small, south-of-the-Thames Menier Chocolate Factory. (David Babani, the company’s founder and artistic director, is one of the producers this side of the Atlantic.)
To hang the adjective “sensational” on Erivo’s shoulders — hunched and intimidated in the first act and then straightened and defiant in the second — only begins to give a sense of her achievement. Her Celie is ultra-magnetic, whether suffering through the loss of sister Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango) to who-knows-where to her abusive marriage to Mister (Isaiah Johnson) to her gradual emergence into womanhood and romance with always-on-the-move Shug Avery (Jennifer Hudson).
By the time Erivo gets to the triumphant Brenda Russell-Allee Willis-Stephen Bray song “I’m Here,” she has transformed Celie with subtlety and style and the audience is in the palm of her hand. They can’t wait to give her the kind of standing ovation that’s so often unwarranted on Broadway but completely deserved here. The entire enterprise, in fact, is loaded to the wings with style, thanks to director John Doyle keeping things simple.
The stage adaptation from Alice Walker’s greatly appreciated novel and 1985 film is performed entirely on a set of Doyle’s devising, obviously enlarged from the tiny Menier Chocolate Factory space. There are four playing levels of various configurations. From the one level, two high, square wood columns rise. An upstage wall, which could pass for a sculpture installation, looks like a vertical wooden floor in a herringbone pattern. It’s hung with approximately 40 chairs, which are a production motif. They’re constantly moved around and sometimes carried, like burdens.
While Erivo stakes her claim to Great White Way renown, other cast members support her with thrilling steadfastness. The first thing to note is that their singing is glorious, from the goin’-to-church start straight through to the final, beautifully harmonized “Amen.”
No one will be surprised to learn that the Oscar-winning, not-quite-rail-thin Hudson has her showstopping turn: “Push Da Button,” performed in a flapper’s glittery red dress. (Costume designer Ann Hould-Ward keeps the rest of the ensemble in dull shades of brown to emphasize their incomes and to complement the wood.) Hudson has the kind of strutting authority needed to help Celie overcome her feelings of unworthiness.
Celie’s other great influence is her “Hell no!” pal Sofia, played and sung with hilarious gusto by Danielle Brooks. (When Tony time rolls around, the nominating committee is going to look closely at The Color Purple‘s whole troupe.) Johnson’s Mister is as harsh as the script demands. Kyle Scatliffe does his assignments nicely as Sofia’s loving hubby with roving eye for the impish Squeak, played impishly by Patrice Covington.
It should be pointed out that what all of these vocally blessed cast members sing is itself a blessing. The score is unusually strong compared to what passes for acceptable scores these days. Informed by a love of gospel, blues and jazz, the authentic joy and despair common to these genres are expressed full-out. There isn’t a single stage-wait in the tuneful bundle. Similarly, the lyrics remain pithy and germane.
A patron can sit through the show wondering why Doyle made such a thing of the chairs, even if they’re visually compelling. But then, when Celie gets to “I’m Here” and she exclaims “I got my chair when my body can’t hold out,” everything becomes clear. The chairs couldn’t be more appropriate for what they symbolize. How the songwriters weave Walker’s title into a lyric is another of their abundant inspirations.
The band is conducted by Jason Michael Webb and Catherine Jayes is the music supervisor. A special call-out to Randy Cohen is required for what the program calls “keyboard programmer.” He must be the one responsible for the cheerful honky-tonk piano frequently heard. (Note: Although Ann Yee was credited with The Color Purple‘s choreography at the Menier Chocolate Factory, there is no choreography credit now.)
So there’s just about nothing to quarrel with where The Color Purple is concerned. A nitpicker might question aspects of Walker’s plot as book writer Marsha Norman transfers it from page to stage covering 1909 to 1949. (What happened to the world wars?) Certainly audiences love that everything comes right in the end. But in a world in which women are so relentlessly dominated by men, does the script demand as much evil from Mister as it might have?
Here’s another: While it’s good that Celie finds God in herself (as Shug explained), given the oppression endured by the people of The Color Purple, is it realistic that so much ends upbeat? Just asking, of course. The show is a wonderful gift of the season.