Review - The Color Purple Revival on Broadway

The show has gotten raves. Color this writer unimpressed.

Cynthia Erivo and the cast of The Color Purple
Cynthia Erivo and the cast of The Color Purple. Matthew Murphy

I appear to be the only person in the Greater Tri-State Area who was unmoved by the current Broadway revival of The Color PurpleReading the raves for this production, I found myself wishing that I had seen the same show that the rest of the critics were so rhapsodic about.

But what I saw on stage at the Jacobs Theatre felt rushed, thin, and perfunctory. Everything about the production seemed to fall short, from John Doyle's impassive direction and production design to the highly touted performances from an admittedly talented slate of newcomers and one Oscar-winning ringer in a disappointing Broadway debut.

I was a bit of a late-comer to the musical version The Color Purple. I was less than enthusiastic at the prospect of the musical, having been nonplussed by Steven Spielberg's cartoonish 1985 film version of Alice Walker's prize-winning novel. I eventually acquiesced and elected to see the Broadway production relatively late in its run, only to miss the show due to foul-weather traffic. (See "What to Do When You Miss Curtain Time.") I eventually caught up with the show in Boston during its national tour, and was actually quite moved, although the score took a few repeated listens to win me over.

The main problem with the current production seems to be director John Doyle's detrimentally understated take on the material. The problems for me began with the opening number, which felt under-energized and lacked focus. If I hadn't seen the show before, I'm not sure I would have known what was happening.

It turns out the rest of the production has the same languid, indistinct quality to it. What's more, the production lacks menace, intensity, a true sense of the gravity of what's transpiring in the plot. We need to believe that Celie is being mistreated by her abusive husband, Mister, but you'd never know it from Cynthia Erivo's matter-of-fact Celie or Isaiah Johnson's edgeless Mister.

Also, I don't recall the story feeling as rushed and cursory as presented in this production. Important events are announced rather than depicted, and events go by too quickly to make an impact. This feels especially egregious during Sofia's confrontation with the mayor's wife and its ramifications. The characters shift a bit too abruptly for credibility's sake, particularly Celie, Mister, and Sofia. The plot development in which Celie finds financial security by making pants feels as artificial as the fabrics that apparently went into the hideous pants themselves, which feature garish colors and rather unflattering lines. (See photo, costumes by Ann Hould-Ward)

When Cynthia Erivo finally lets loose toward the end, and drops the stolid countenance, she's actually a remarkable performer, although as a rule I'm not a fan of the showboating vocal histrionics that everyone else seems so impressed by these days. As Shug Avery, Jennifer Hudson seems rather unimpressed with the whole Broadway experience. With the exception of when she's exhibiting the aforementioned vocal excess, she always seems to look as though she has someplace more interesting to be. Throughout the show, including during the curtain call, Hudson gives the impression of being put upon, as if the whole affair were somehow beneath her.

(A quick scan of her anemic IMDB listing would seem to indicate otherwise.)