The Color Purple at Mercury Theater: Theater review
The Mercury's production of the 2005 Broadway musical doesn't solve any of the piece's storytelling problems, but an outstanding cast helps smooth them over.
The 2005 Broadway musical The Color Purple, based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer-winning 1982 novel and Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated 1985 film adaptation, has felt to me since I first saw its touring incarnation in 2007 a bit like a ride at EPCOT Center. You strap yourself in, and the cars begin to move past one scene after another in the life of Miss Celie, born into the unfortunate circumstances of being poor, black and "ugly" in the early 20th century, and the varied characters who become her extended family. But in an effort to be thorough, the train's chugging a little too fast for you to be able to really take everything in.
The theater director John Doyle is currently trying to address that problem in an acclaimed new production in London, where he's been given the blessing of the show's creators and producers to come up with a revised and downsized edition that looks likely to become the preferred version for future licensing.
The Mercury Theater's L. Walter Stearns, at the same time, has helmed the show's first Chicago-local production working with the original, slightly bloated script and score, and he's made no obvious attempts to fix the show's overstuffed plot and breakneck pace. If anything, his production seems to be a fairly slavish, though miniaturized, reproduction of Gary Griffin's original staging, at least as it was seen on tour.
That means that all of book writer Marsha Norman's cinematically brief scenes and the often snippet-ish tunes by the team of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray remain, along with the clunky transitions and whiplash-inducing turns of plot that come with them. Early in the show, Celie's sister Nettie arrives to live with Celie and her controlling husband, Mister, only to be banished 30 seconds later because she resisted Mister's sexual advances. Some significant amount of time seems to have passed in the world of the play, but your guess is as good as mine as to how much; she never even left the stage, but hey, let's keep it moving, we've got another plot point and well-known line of dialogue awaiting on our itinerary.
And yet Stearns's production proves far more winning than what I saw on the Bank of America Theatre's stage six years ago. That's partly due to scale: The musical's small, occasionally sentimental moments got swallowed up in that enormous house in a way the Mercury can keep close at hand. And it's also a credit to the Mercury's remarkable cast, led by Trisha Jeffrey, who somehow draws your eye to Celie even while her character remains a passive observer through much of her own story.
Adrienne Walker makes an alluringly enigmatic and sensual Shug Avery, the nightclub singer who becomes a touchstone in Celie's love life, while an impressive Jasondra Johnson runs away with her every scene as Celie's headstrong daughter-in-law Sofia, and the whole cast executes their vocals and Brenda Didier's choreography with great skill. I'll still look forward to seeing Doyle's pared-down version, but Stearns's goes a long way toward redeeming the original for me.