In the prologue to her autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou writes: “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.”
In “The Color Purple,” the absorbing musical based on Alice Walker’s novel, Celie (Adrianna Hicks) is such a Southern Black girl, living in Georgia from 1909-1949. As she’s reminded by the men around her, and even the Greek chorus of church-going black matrons, she’s not only black and female — she’s also poor and ugly. Oh, like Angelou, Celie is painfully aware of her displacement.
But the story chronicles Celie’s redemption from loneliness, despair, and unbelief. It’s a redemption bought by her strength of character and fierce love for her sister, Nettie (N’jameh Camara); her lost children (Darnell Abraham & Gabrielle Reid); her daughter-in-law, the confident Sofia (Carrie Compere); and the enigmatic singer Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart).
While I’m not sure that this 2016 re-treatment of the original 2005 hit has solved the narrative problem — Act I takes its time in telling the story, while Act II covers more ground more quickly — the emotional changes brought on by Celie’s growing self-confidence are satisfying. Even the nasty Mister (Gavin Gregory) experiences redemption, though Wednesday’s audience rightly cheered at Celie’s tempered response to his apology.
Under John Doyle’s direction, the action is fluid, with one scene melting into the next, lighting and musical transitions accompanying the placing or removal of straight-back chairs. The chairs are the only pieces of scenery, in one episode serving as church pews, in another as nightclub seats, in a third as jail bars, and in another as shovels.
The musical’s book is by Marsha Norman, and the songs — gospel, jazz, ballads, blues, and rhythm and blues — are by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, & Stephen Bray. This troupe, which is taking the production on a national tour (next stop: Baltimore), squeezes out every bit of pathos and humor the show has to offer, and the cast is in sync with the fabulous orchestra under Darryl Archibald’s inspired direction.
Standout numbers include Compere’s “Hell No!,” an in-your-face rebuke to sexism; Stewart’s tender “Too Beautiful for Words,” followed by her sassy “Push da Button,” back-to-back-songs that lay out the yin and yang of Shug’s personality; Gregory’s powerful “Celie’s Curse”; and the sexy duet between Harpo (J. Daughtry) and Sofia, “Any Little Thing.”
Hicks is compelling as Celie, introverted in Act I and outgoing and joyous in Act II. “What About Love?,” “Miss Celie’s Pants,” and “I’m Here” reveal the range of this young actress’s considerable talent.
I read the book years ago; I saw the movie; and now I’ve seen the musical. I am eager to see it again.
‘The Color Purple’
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St.
WHEN: Thurs., 1:30 & 8:00; Fri., 8:00; Sat., 2:00
HOW MUCH: $85-$20
MORE INFO: 518.346.6204, or proctors.org