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The Color Purple

Feel-Good and Unfaithful

I haven’t seen Oprah Winfrey’s eponymous prime-time talk show in years, but it’s hard to deny her presence in our cultural milieu. Whether I’m eyeballing the needlessly self-aggrandizing covers of O magazine at my grocery store’s checkout stand, getting the scoop on a tawdry celebrity confessional on Oprah’s hot seat, browsing her book club selections at Borders, or reading a mawkish inspirational piece on Ms. Winfrey’s symptomatic do-gooding, I’ll be the first to admit that she’s officially planted her flag.

Now, “producer” is just one among Oprah’s many protean roles. The marquee of the musical adaptation of "The Color Purple" unabashedly proclaims, “Oprah Winfrey Presents", which is little surprise, considering her appearance in the 1985 film version. The production, which boasts a glittery selection of Broadway and gospel luminaries, premiered in Chicago in April and immediately augured numerous laurels, given the edifying content and focus on female empowerment. But therein lies the rub. The problem with this zealously heartfelt version, which conveniently shies away from author Alice Walker’s brilliant laying-bare of systemic sexual and emotional abuse -- is precisely that it’s far too sunny and saccharine to contain the messy, molten heart of the novel on which it is based.

The story is composed of a collection of deceivingly simple epistles dashed off by the 14-year-old protagonist, Celie. At the beginning, we learn that Celie has been raped and impregnated twice by her father. After her children are summarily taken away from her, she’s married off to a man who’s so spiritless and despotic that she is only allowed to address him as “Mister.” Celie’s saving grace is her younger sister, Nettie, with whom she dreams of a world where both are free of the indignities of being poor, black, and female. However, when Mister makes unwanted sexual advances toward Nettie, she’s cruelly wrenched from her older sister -- a trauma that informs the remainder of Celie’s tale.

The opening of the play (in the form of a foot-stomping gospel litany), although ostensibly at odds with Walker’s harrowing portrait of southern life in the early 20th century, is tantalizingly buoyant. Donald Byrd’s agile choreography blends perfectly with the spunky, effervescent music and lyrics of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. But despite a spot-on cast and an always-entertaining, albeit unmemorable selection of songs, the action is largely borne along by scenes ranging from banal to embarrassingly melodramatic. Given the “Oprah Winfrey Presents” moniker, it’s inevitable that Walker’s excruciatingly gorgeous prose has been pauperized by feel-good sentimentality.

While the novel spans 40 years and details Celie’s spiritual and sexual evolution, from housebound doormat to self-assured working woman, the direction of the musical is too aimless to adequately delineate Celie’s transformation. Although singer/actress Jeannette Bayardelle brings down the house with her poignant performance, the bulk of her songs are trite discourses that only partially clue us into the vibrant interior life of this deeply sensitive character. The one-dimensionality of the characters has its apogee in Celie’s tear-jerking ditty, “I’m Here". It represents a pivotal turning point in Walker’s novel, but hearing Celie proclaim that she is “beautiful, and I’m here” after years of being beaten down by the Mister is almost painful in its bathos, corniness and cheap indulgence in easy sentimentality.

However much the stylized sunniness of this production sticks in your craw, many of the actors offer enchanting performances. Bayardelle’s Celie, despite a script and direction that feel flat and insipid at times, is transcendent, and the innocence of the character is both heart-rending and disarming. Pop star Michelle Williams drips with sensuality and mischief as Shug Avery, Mister’s beautiful, iconoclastic mistress who also teaches Celie to stick up for herself. Rufus Bonds, Jr., who plays Mister, is another commanding presence, and he skillfully salvages his role from brutish caricature.

But it’s hard to upstage Felicia P. Fields, who reprises her role as Sofia, the sassy, Rubenesque wife of Celie’s stepson Harpo. Sofia is the only character in the story that refuses to let herself be victimized, even after a particularly agonizing encounter with racism, and her strident, saucy song “Hell No!” is the musical at its rollicking best. Finally, a trio of harmonizing busybody church ladies (played by Lynette Dupree, Kimberly Ann Harris, and Virginia Ann Woodruff) allow the audience to stay abreast of public opinion, to hilarious effect.

While much of the music is pleasant yet unexceptional, musical director Sheilah Walker leads the orchestra through an impressive mélange of musical styles, from gospel to blues, and ensures that the energy of the show is always consistent and peppy. And Paul Tazewell’s dynamic costumes and set designer John Lee Beatty’s evocative silhouetted backdrops persuasively summon up the zeitgeist of the South at the turn of the century.

Despite several enticing moments, the pace of "The Color Purple" is disorienting and episodic, and the abrupt shifts in time and place are often confusing. Some of the best parts of the musical feel disjointed, and the scenes in which we are apprised of Nettie’s life in Africa are little more than exotic puffery that serve only to stupefy and distract.

The major problem with "The Color Purple" is that it does such little justice to Walker’s novel, which covers issues of sexism, racism, homosexuality, depression, and cycles of poverty and abuse with impossible grace. The musical version, as if to placate the common viewer’s sensibilities, skirts around some of the more unpalatable details of Walker’s story, choosing to imbue it instead with the emotional depth of a Hallmark movie.

If you’re merely looking for a simple, feel-good story with simple, feel-good tunes to while away three hours, you won’t be disappointed. But if you’re expecting a faithful interpretation of Walker’s novel -- one that divulges the transformative power of love, even in the face of great cruelty -- just heed the marquee and be forewarned.

The Color Purple
plays through December 9.
at the Orpheum Theatre
tickets: $35-99