Richard and I saw the musical *The Color Purple* on Broadway on 6/16. Things did not get off to a particularly good start - - we grabbed a little dinner at a deli down the street, Richard got a buttered roll and I got a chicken, pesto, mozzarella, and sun-dried tomato wrap. We ate in Shubert Alley. My chicken was rather flavorless and dry, I only ate half and put the other half in my bag. We got to the theater and the security guard looked through my bag.
HIM: What's in that paper bag?
ME: A sandwich.
HIM: You can't bring that in the theater. You'll need to eat it out there.
HIM: Yes, I'm sorry.
So I threw it away. That did NOT make me happy, and made Richard even more cranky. His point: the security guard is supposed to prevent ne from bringing weapons into the theater, he's not supposed to prevent me from bringing in a flavorless chicken and pesto wrap.
But we were able to get over our crankiness. We had very good seats and there was a wonderful energy in the theater. The show premiered on Broadway in 2005, and I didn't see it, even though my friend Nate Stampley was in the cast. This revival opened in December and got rave reviews, was said to be much stronger than the original production. So I put it on my radar.
Cynthia Erivo had just won the Tony a few nights before for playing Celie, and the audience applauded when Celie first walked onstage. But I knew better! I had seen the little slip of paper in the playbill listing the cast, and saw that her understudy, Bre Jackson, was doing that performance. But let me tell you, she was fantastic! I've never seen a bad understudy in a Broadway show. The Met is another story...
Jennifer Hudson had opened the show, playing Shug Avery, the juke joint singer and Celie's great love. She had left the show a couple months before and was replaced by Heather Headley. She was the best thing in the show, she has great charisma and a wonderful voice.
It was directed by John Doyle, who made his reputation (with me, anyway) directing two Sondheim musicals (*Sweeney Todd* and *Company*) on Broadway. The gimmick was that there was no orchestra: the actors played all the instruments, often while singing. I liked both those shows and the other things I'd seen him do, and he did a great job delivering the story. The staging was spare but very effective. This show will tour like a pro.
The show itself was as mixed bag. The opening number was a rousing gospel number for the ensemble and it got the audience all riled up. But the transition into Celie's bleak story didn't work. This is a fault with the show itself, I don't know how you could solve that in the staging. It took me a bit to get over that - - the first ten minutes of a musical are crucial, they don't just grab the audience's attention, they also have to set the tone and prepare us for the story. This show's opening did not work.
But I was drawn into the story. The story is about Celie's empowerment and she's maybe even stronger in the musical than she was in the movie (I'm a bit ashamed to say I haven't read the book). Her music develops in a fascinating way over the course of the show. Mister, her common-law husband, is humanized by the end, but we get that without him having a song to explain his process of enlightenment to us. That song was one of the biggest clunkers I've ever seen onstage, and the fault did not lie with Isaiah Johnson, who did his best. The fault was in the song, it was a stupid song and a dead theatrical moment.
The end of the show was profoundly satisfying. Celie had developed into an extraordinary woman, Mister was somewhat redeemed, Celie's sister and two children came back, everyone sang a rousing gospel number, the women were all wearing brightly colored pants, and the audience went mental. I left the theater much happier than when I went in, and isn't that what it's all about, Alfie?
PS: That security guard situation reminded me of a priceless story about the Met Museum. Years ago Richard and I had a date with our friend Barbara and her kids Katherine and William at the Met Museum, on a Friday night. The next morning my chorus was having a Saturday rehearsal and I was bringing bagels. There's a great bagel shop near my workplace, so I got a dozen bagels and thought I'd save myself the trouble of buying them in the morning.
I got to the museum and the guard told me I couldn't bring food into the museum. I said that I was going to check my bag, but that didn't make any difference, I couldn't bring food into the museum. Of course I was there ten minutes before Richard, Barbara, Katherine, or William, so I had a while to strategize. I was NOT going to throw out a dozen bagels. I looked around and saw a dense bush at an apartment building across the street. I shoved my bag of bagels into the bush.
The four of them arrived, kisses all around. We saw the show (I think it might have been the retrospective of work acquired by outgoing Director Philippe Montebello) and left the museum to grab dinner. I said, "I have to get something across the street." Blah blah blah, the four of them talking, and I pulled a paper bag full of bagels out of a bush. No words from the four of them. William, who was about 15 at the time, said, "What the hell are you doing?" I said, "I buy all my bagels here."