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Friday, December 2, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

"Purple" makes bumpy transition to Broadway

Seattle Times theater critic

NEW YORK — The newly opened Broadway musical based on "The Color Purple" carries $10 million in investors' backing. It has the blessings of Alice Walker, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel it is based on, and the curiosity of legions of readers who adored Walker's uplifting best-seller.

And it boasts the active, on-air support of Oprah Winfrey, surely the most influential media celebrity of our day. Winfrey is an investor in the show, and her name is placed first above the title in the long list of its producers.

Yet whether all that (and what production sources estimate as an $8 million to $9 million advance ticket sale) will add up to a long-running hit is debatable, given the story's bumpy transition to the musical stage — and the unforgiving standards and expectations of Broadway.

With a sometimes plodding fidelity to Walker's book, the show spans the years 1909 to 1949 and chronicles the saga of the African-American, female protagonist, Celie (played by veteran Broadway actress LaChanze), from her exploited, sexually abused adolescence to her metamorphosis into an accomplished, fulfilled and beloved middle-aged woman.

Like the 1985 Steven Spielberg movie version, Marsha Norman's book for the musical struggles to translate the spare, poignant prose of the book (constructed mainly from Celie's letters to God and others), into satisfying drama.

The show conveys the almost unbearably harsh conditions of Celie's early life, and the brutality she suffers at the hands of her callous stepfather and her husband, Mister (Kingsley Leggs).

But, as in the film, it also strains to balance these dark elements with humor, and the story's more uplifting elements: Celie's exalting love for a glamorous singer, Shug Avery (Elisabeth Withers-Mendes) and her life-enhancing attachment to her long-lost sister Nettie (Renee Elise Goldsberry), and to her stepson's assertive wife, Sofia (Felicia P. Fields).

"The Color Purple" is playing at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, New York City, 212-239-6200 or www.colorpurple.com.

And in musical numbers like "Pusha Da Button" and "Mysterious Ways" the production also wants to celebrate the sensual vitality and spiritual traditions of rural African-American communities in the early 20th-century South.

What isn't achieved here, however, is a basic mastery of the Broadway musical idiom. In a production busy with exposition and scene shifting, the dramatic junctures most ripe for full throttle, song-and-dance numbers or potent soliloquies are too often ignored, or inadequately filled.

The narrative is split among so many characters, it takes too long to establish Celie as the primary focus.

The dances, created by choreographer Donald Byrd (artistic head of Seattle's Spectrum Dance Theater), tend to trail off before they build up much momentum. And an "African Homeland" fantasy number imagines Africa in overly familiar, folklorical terms.

But most of the show's missed opportunities (along with some of its genuinely poignant moments) relate to the score, crafted by three pop songwriters: Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, all theatrical novices.

Surprisingly, and ineffectually, a gossiping "Church Ladies" trio gets to sing as much (or more) than Celie. At least both of the act-closing songs that showcase the endearing LaChanze's stirring vocals are memorable: the impassioned duet "What About Love?" and the triumphant "I'm Here."

Yet generally the score is a folksy-pop jumble, with lots of throw-away incidental music amid the sturdier tunes. It is all belted out with gusto by a committed cast, which does its best to connect with the audience whenever possible.

There was no doubt from the performance I saw that many patrons will embrace the characters and sentiments they recall fondly from Walker's book. And their enthusiasm (along with Oprah's) may keep "Color Purple" running awhile.

But it's time to reiterate the obvious: Not every good book (or popular film) is apt source material for a splashy Broadway musical. Ultimately, one misses the direct, unadorned suppleness of Walker's original tale, which may always be best realized on the page — or someday, maybe, on a smaller, less commercial stage.

mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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