By Mark Kennedy
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
NEW YORK _ To those who question why a revival of “The Color Purple” is back on Broadway after its predecessor closed there only in 2008, the answer is two words, and it may not be the two words you expect.
She is an absolute marvel in the lead role of Celie, playing her at first with defeated deference, then indignation and then righteous might. Her voice lifts the roof off the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. There are times you forget Jennifer Hudson also is onstage.
The musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of female empowerment opened Thursday. It’s the John Doyle-directed revival that premiered at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in 2013.
Doyle is known for his minimalist techniques, stripping away production elements and cutting bloat. True to form, the set here consists mostly of wooden chairs, which are used to create a bathtub, a juke joint, a jail and much more.
The cleverness of the ploy wears a little thin toward the end. Another effect that’s also decidedly low-tech does not: the use of sheets to represent Africa and, in one marvelous moment, one of Celie’s newborns.
The musical primarily focuses on Celie’s journey from abuse to independence and self-esteem, an arduous trek that takes some four decades, from 1909 to 1949. She laments: “If God ever listened to a poor colored woman the world would be a different place.”
Doyle’s pacing in the first act is so swift that there’s little time to breathe as misery seems to visit Celie without release _ losing a sister, marrying a monster, endless work, beatings, abandoning her kids. Things loosen up in a more airy second act, and costume designer Ann Hould-Ward starts adding bursts of colour.
Hudson as the hedonistic Shug Avery rushes her lines a tad but no one will care when she opens her mouth to deliver the title song or wiggle in the slinky, memorable group dance number “Push da Button.” There is purity and astounding horse power in her voice.
Danielle Brooks, from “Orange Is the New Black,” makes a strong Sofia, one whose spirit of mirth never gets lost. Isaiah Johnson is an effectively cruel Mister, though his redemption in the second half is a little abrupt.
Marsha Norman, author of “’night, Mother,” adapted Walker’s book for the stage. The score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, is a happy melting pot of melodies, from gospel to jazz and R&B.
Doyle and this company are best just letting Erivo and Hudson sing and the memorable renditions keep coming: Celie and Shug with “What About Love?” Celie singing the roof-raising “I’m Here.” And the triumphant “Miss Celie’s Pants.” Listening to them is a rare treat. It takes you to a different place.
Follow Mark Kennedy at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/mark-kennedy