The touring production of John Doyle’s 2016 Tony Award-winning revival THE COLOR PURPLE has landed at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre, where it will make hearts both soar and ache with the blaze of emotion it delivers. Doyle, a director best known for his stripped-down productions of American musicals, has applied that minimalist treatment here as well. And it works beautifully. The set only features a few modest risers flanked by a backdrop wall featuring several wooden chairs (Doyle also designed the scenery). When the actors first make their entrances, they bring more of these simple chairs along with them as they invite the audience into the story. This simplicity, also mirrored in Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes and Jane Cox’s lighting design, brings a profundity to the staging. THE COLOR PURPLE’s modest production values never feel like they’re skimpy, but rather they lay the foundation for the show’s deeply human message.
Of course, THE COLOR PURPLE focuses on a Black community in a small Georgia town and at its center is Celie. She’s only 14 at the top of the show, but she has already suffered the loss of two children whom she believes she has borne with her own father. Not only that, but Celie is soon separated from her sister Nettie and forced to marry the cruel Mister. While THE COLOR PURPLE’s set up is bleak indeed, this musical with book by Marsha Normal and music by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, above all tells a story of female empowerment and growth. And that is a message that we could all stand to see before us now.
The production succeeds not only in concept, but because such a spectacular and clearly passionate cast presents the material to us. Adrianna Hicks has such a convincing and honest character progression as Celie, moving from shy and wounded at the show’s beginning to self-assured and outspoken by the end. Hicks mirrors this trajectory in her performance—her dialogue and vocals start out soft and light but build to her complete knockout performance in Celie’s 11 o’clock number “I’m Here.”
We see Celie come into her own because of the women that come into her life and give her the support and confidence she so desperately craves. N’Jameh Camara is sweet and profound as Nettie, Celie’s first close confidante. Carrie Compere gives a superb performance ranging from expertly comedic to immensely sorrowful as Sofia. She quickly befriends Celie and teaches her that she should not let men dictate her life in the incredible “Hell No.” Compere’s vocals are untouchable; she has so much power in her voice and yet makes it all seem so easy.
Celie strikes up a fast friendship with Sofia, but she’s also incredibly taken with town legend Shug Avery—and Carla R. Stewart’s performance makes it easy to see why. Stewart conveys Shug’s bold personality without ever overdoing it and her delivery of the title song is enough to bring one to tears. She and Hicks also bring such depth to their stunning duet “What About Love?” that it is impossible not to be moved.
Even though THE COLOR PURPLE focuses predominantly on female relationships, the male characters are also well-represented in this casting. Gavin Gregory is unnervingly creepy as the abusive Mister, but he still manages to garner pathos through his powerhouse delivery of the complex solo “Celie’s Curse” in the second act. As Sofia’s husband Harpo, J. Daughtry can match her formidable comedy bit-for-bit; he and Compere supply such lightheartedness with their duet “Any Little Thing.”
In Doyle’s staging, all of the pieces come together to deliver a production that initially seems to wash over audiences subtly and then builds to a mighty and emotionally rich conclusion. This presentation of THE COLOR PURPLE captures so magnificently the way in which the show probes the depths of humanity. It is gratifying and moving to watch the resilient Celie’s journey—and the journey of the equally resilient women around her—as they pull through hardships, abuse, and racial prejudice while remaining strong and hopeful. And by the time the company comes together to reprise the title song at the end of the show, it’s impossible for your heart not to feel immensely full.
Broadway In Chicago’s engagement of THE COLOR PURPLE plays through July 29 at the Auditorium Theatre. Tickets are $27-$100. BroadwayInChicago.com
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Originally posted on BroadwayWorld.com