Friday, March 28, 2008

The Color Purple

‘THE COLOR PURPLE’ slightly off hue at The Palace

When ‘THE COLOR PURPLE,’ which is now being presented at The Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square, opened on Broadway, it was greeted with mixed reviews. Comments included ‘the first act was quite good, but the second act slowly subsides into a mess of molasses,” “it is often moving,” and, “The disheartening lack of quality in the material dilutes the quality of feeling and makes the meanings behind it look questionable as well."

In spite of the less than stellar evaluations, the show, which opened in 2005 ran until 2008, clocking up a respectable 910 performances.Playhouse Square Center,

How did this happen? Two strong concepts seemed to push the box office. First was that one of the show’s producers was Oprah Winfrey who continued to plug the show on her syndicated show. The second was the positive vibe of the 1986 Steven Spielberg film that earned eleven Oscar nomination for the adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel.

Set in Georgia, the family saga spans the era from 1910 to the 1940s. It relates the story of a Black woman who, through sheer will, carves out her unique place in the world. The victim of incest and spousal abuse, the put-upon Celie stumbles upon role models who expose her to other ways to live and help convince the shy and appeasing woman to take a stand, and blossom into a self-confident person.

The music and lyrics, written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, are not memorable. In contrast to many Broadway shows, none of the songs has become well known. That doesn’t mean the score is bad, it just doesn’t have any outstanding numbers. You will not go out whistling or humming any of the tunes.

The touring company does an acceptable job of working with the script. However, the pacing was lackadaisical. Since the production has been on the road for a while, the cast may have just gotten into a groove and is operating on automatic pilot or maybe they just hadn’t adjusted to the scourge of touring shows, rushing from one city to another with no time to settle in.

The general topic of conversation at intermission was the difficulty people were having hearing and understanding the spoken and sung words. As happened with the recently closed ‘WICKED,’ the sound system simply was not well tuned. There were buzzes, sometimes performers spoke and their microphones weren’t on, and the general balance levels were poor. There were also some problem in the timing of the lighting effects.

Though the choreography often lacked creativity, there were several staging highlights, including “Hell No!,” which examines the roles of husbands and wives; “Push Da Button,” and “Any Little Thing.”

The cast was generally good. Jeannette Bayardelle, who portrayed Celie, has a strong voice. Her “I’m Here” was the show’s musical highlight. Through vacant looking eyes, she well developed the put-upon young lady. Her physical transformation into a confident woman later in the show was masterfully done.

The audience favorite was Felicia Fields as the take-no-prisoners, outspoken, domineering Sofia. The Church Ladies, who often over-acted, brought gales of laughter. Shaker Heights native Rufus Bonds, Jr., was appropriately obnoxious as Mister, Celie’s despicable husband.

It was interesting to observe the differences between the African American and Euro American audience members. Used to the answer-back style of oratory, in which audience members shout out agreement with a speaker or preacher, many of the Black members of the audience responded verbally to the play’s lines and reacted to the treatment of various characters. In contrast, white audience members often seemed startled by the audience participation and some even attempted to “shush” those who were verbally reacting.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Don’t go to ‘THE COLOR PURPLE’ expecting to experience a classic musical theatre production. This is definitely not ‘WEST SIDE STORY,’ ‘CHORUS LINE,’ or even ‘WICKED.’ But, go to experience a culture-specific story, somewhat adequately developed and performed.