If you're going to turn a rich, classic novel like Alice Walker's The Color Purple into a Broadway musical, you had better make sure you don't cheapen it.
Musicals, by their very nature, have a tendency to be cheesy, overdone and unintelligent. I would say there are very few exceptions. Folks typically don't stand in line for a Broadway musical expecting to see something that will challenge what they think they know about human nature. They do it to have a good time.
The Color Purple, though, is a novel that, since its publication in 1982, has changed lives. And so when, in 2005, a team of producers, including Scott Sanders, Quincy Jones, Harvey Weinstein and Oprah Winfrey, decided to make a musical out of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning tale, they were met with some skepticism.
The Color Purple: The Musical About Love opened on Broadway on Dec. 1, 2006 to rave reviews from critics and audience members alike. The musical was nominated for 11 Tony awards that year and took home one.
The show ended its Broadway run in February 2008 and is now on its first North American tour. It lands in Tulsa January 20-25 for eight performances at the Chapman Musical Hall of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St.
The story, from what I gather, pretty much follows the book. Celie and Nettie are black sisters living in 1911 rural Georgia. Celie, at 14, is pregnant with her second child, and the town speculates that Celie's father is also the father of her children.
Once she gives birth, her son, like the daughter she bore previously, is taken from her "to be with God." Her father gives her to a man she refers to as "Mister" to marry, and in his home she is beaten, abused and treated like a slave laborer. Her sister lives with them for a time, but, when she refuses his sexual advances, Mister throws her out; she promises to write Celie.
Years pass and no letters come, so Celie assumes Nettie is dead. She meets a strong, willful woman named Sofia, who intends to marry Mister's 17-year-old son Harpo, and who encourages Celie to fight back against Mister.
In the second act, roles change as Sofia is beaten down, her will and strength stolen from her, and Celie finds the courage to leave Mister and start her own tailoring business. Mister, realizing his life has gone horribly awry due to the choices he's made for himself, makes amends with Celie; and Sofia and Harpo also repair their relationship.
The music that accompanies the tale, which I previewed on the show's Web site, is moving, and the actors' voices ring out. The story's anthems are sung in the styles of bluegrass, jazz and gospel. The sound mimics the sort of everyman music that would have been common to that time--instruments include washboards, spoons and pots as pans as much as they do drums, guitars and horns.
LaToya London, who plays Nettie and has garnered some national fame as a finalist on American Idol season three, got involved with the show in 1997.
"It's a beautiful story," she said. "I saw the movie when I was little. It's been a part of my life pretty much since the beginning."
She said she was surprised to hear it was being adapted into a stage musical and worried about it being cheesy, but, once she read the script, she jumped at the opportunity to audition for the show.
"The music is magnificent," she said.
The rave reviews and endorsement by the novel's author also indicate how well, how surprisingly well, the story works as a musical. It will serve as an opportunity for those who've never read the book or seen the movie to appreciate such a tale of strength, triumph, love and joy. Because, in the end, that's what it's all about, though it's quite a journey getting there.
The show plays Tue., Wed. and Thurs. at 7:30pm; Fri. at 8pm; Sat. at 2pm and 8pm; and Sun. at 2pm and 7pm. Tickets are $20-60 at tulsapac.com.
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