The Color Purple: SM Goes to Broadway

 

[NOTE: I reviewed this play several months ago but couldn’t post it at the time. The Tony Award-winning lead actress, Cynthia Erivo, is still anchoring the show and she is phenomenal. Some other cast members have moved on.]

 

Before I start this review about this particular play, I want to clarify some of my experience and thoughts about Broadway and theater culture in general. Because this is a pop culture column, and theater is a culture. It’s not one that I’ve ever been a part of, so of course that’s going to color my interpretation and opinions of any Broadway play that I see.

 

Feel free to skip down to the * * * break if you just came for the review!

 

Still here?

 

Okay, let’s do this.

 

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I don’t mean “theater culture” as in all the fun times and traditions that go on behind the scenes between stage actors, because I am so far removed from that part of it that I’m not even going to pretend to be qualified to opine on it. I’m pretending to be qualified to opine about theater-going culture, the culture of regularly going to see Broadway plays, either cheaply or by paying significant sums of money — just considering that a routine thing to do.

 

For me, it is absolutely not. I’ve now seen three Broadway shows in my life, including this one.

 

One was a birthday present when I turned five (yes, twenty years ago) — my dad took me to see Beauty and the Beast. Of course, that was pretty much wasted on a five-year-old, even an adorably precocious one such as myself. All I remember is the moment when the Beast turned into the prince; it was basically magic.

 

I saw my second show, West Side Story, as a perk of being accepted to the full-scholarship Macaulay Honors College — you know, the CUNY program designed to poach potential Ivy League students into attending CUNY colleges by bribing us with money, laptops, and free Broadway shows. (It worked.)

 

The third was this one, The Color Purple, for which I copyedited a number of posts for a friend’s Broadway blog (shout-out to BroadwayWiz!) in exchange for a ticket.

 

You may have noticed a common thread among these experiences: I didn’t pay for my ticket. And I point that out because I think that that’s the crux of my exclusion from theater-going culture: money.

 

Broadway is expensive entertainment.

 

I don’t just mean the Hamilton craze and $1000 tickets (though I do find it sadly ironic that a play about the value of diversity and immigrants is being effectively limited to the wealthy, mostly white elites). I also mean that it’s especially expensive when you come from a big family, like I do. Seven kids, two parents. There are things you just don’t do a lot when your family is nine people and your parents are teachers. To name a couple: you don’t eat out at restaurants much, and you don’t go to Broadway shows. Because take the price of a meal or a ticket, and multiply it by nine.

 
tma

Yeah. 

 

So I didn’t grow up going to Broadway shows, and as a result, whenever I’ve got a few extra bucks and am looking for an activity or some entertainment, it doesn’t even enter my mind to consider going to a Broadway show. Like, I’ve got a $5 movie theater in my neighborhood. The price on my ticket for West Side Story was $110. Do you know how many movies I could see and how much sushi I could buy with that money? Or how many clothes or other other stuff that isn’t a one-time ephemeral experience?

 

A lot. The answer is “a lot.” So for me, Broadway has just always lived in a zone in my mind that is simply outside of my pay grade. And yeah, I know there are ways to get cheaper tickets, but some of them take a lot of effort, and it just isn’t something that occurs to me, because of that zone.

 

* * *

 

So with that in mind, what did I think of The Color Purple, the Tony Award-winning musical on Broadway?

 

Well, I think a lot of things. Firstly, I’ve read the book, and I absolutely love it. It is one of very, very few “classic” works of literature that I have genuinely enjoyed and actually recommend to other people instead of warning them away.

 

In case you haven’t read it, it’s a story that begins horrifically and ends as one of the most empowering feminist narratives that I have ever read. It’s the story of Celie, a young black girl who has been raped multiple times by her father* and borne him two children by the time she’s 16. She hasn’t seen them since she gave birth and believes he may have killed them. (I know, this is literally the worst beginning ever. Blowing up the planet would be less depressing.) Then, in order to save her sister, Nettie, from having to marry an abusive man, she agrees to marry him herself.

 

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The story then follows Celie’s married life, the people she meets, the influences they have on her, and her slowly-developing sense of self-worth as she becomes more and more fed up with her husband and her life circumstances. She learns to draw strength from the people around her and ultimately from herself and her own inner confidence and value, and finally stands up to her husband and her community, and it is GLORIOUS.

 

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*Turns out the man she thought was her father was actually her stepfather, but that’s no less horrific.

 

The play sticks with the same basic storyline, characters, and emotional beats as the book, although I do think that it downplayed the emergent lesbian aspect of Celie’s character. Other versions, such as the 1985 movie, have probably done that too, because the book’s portrayal of lesbianism and frank discussion of female sexuality were extremely progressive for its time, and the mediums of film and stage probably weren’t ready for it.

 

But regardless, Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Celie is amazing. She is tough, vulnerable, quietly rebellious, with sharp comic timing that adds a laugh or two to some of the bleakest scenes. Erivo completely deserved the Tony Award she won for the role. Even though there are many times when the men do the talking and have all the agency in Celie’s early life, she is always in the foreground of the stage, well-lit and prominent, so that we never forget that this is her story, not theirs.

 

Another standout performance was Sofia, played by Danielle Brooks, better known as Taystee from Orange Is The New Black [NOTE: Sophia is currently played by Carrie Compere]. Sofia is big, loud, brash, and is the first woman we meet in the play who immediately talks back to the men and takes no crap from them. She utterly rejects the accepted social norms that give men the right to beat their wives and girlfriends, and she walks out when her boyfriend hits her. It’s so refreshing in the context of the play, where so far all we’ve seen is women being crushed under men’s authority and only able to resist in quiet, subtle ways.

 
danielle-brooks-and-meI got to take a picture with her after the show. That’s her face on the poster between us. Photocred to BroadwayWiz!

 

The book, of course, is not a musical. And honestly, I preferred the speaking parts of the play to the musical parts. This is partly because I have a general preference for good dialogue, and partly because I felt like something was off with the acoustics of the theater. It was too small for the huge voices of the cast. Solos were usually fine, but when more than one person was singing or if they were belting at the top of their lungs, the words seemed to all crash together, and my friend and I could hardly ever tell what they were saying in the group songs. I really wanted subtitles. (I had the same thought when I saw West Side Story. Someone really needs to invent a subtitle projector for theater.) Maybe it was a fluke mic problem, maybe it sounded different down in the orchestra seats (we were on the mezzanine), but whatever it was, I was glad there was a lot of speaking to augment the music. If I’d paid for my ticket (about $75), I might have been disappointed. So I’d suggest that if you want to see it, listen to the cast album first so that you’re more familiar with the songs than we were.

 

Lastly, I’d like to mention that there is a pretty strong religious theme in the play — the title is a reference to how one of the characters uses the existence of good or beautiful things in the world, like the color purple, to explain her belief in God. I’ve never been the biggest fan of that sort of philosophy, where you attribute anything good to God and just kind of handwave all the bad. So that aspect of it didn’t really resonate with me, but others may have found it uplifting. I was more inspired by the strength and resilience of the characters, who fought through an oppressive society to ultimately find happiness and support each other through some of the most awful situations.

 

Bottom line: This was an excellent production with riveting performances and it held my attention easily the entire time. Those who like musicals might like it more than I did, especially if they listen to the songs in advance, but there is plenty of dialogue for those of us who prefer that. It is a more expensive show, so if you can get cheaper tickets, go for it. If you can’t, I hope I’ve done a decent job letting you know what you’re in for so you can decide if it’s worth the full price. The book is less expensive though, and definitely worth it.
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Sarah Meira (SM) Rosenberg is a former auto mechanic and current jill-of-all-writing/editing-trades. She has a degree in Creative Writing, her very own Amazon author page, a podcast with some fellow nerdgirls, and a gofundme where anyone can commission her to write about anything — movies, TV, books, sports, you name it. Got anything you want me to review? Feel free to commission it through the GoFundMe! Otherwise, just sit back and enjoy.

 

REVIEW: Shakespeare in the Park — Love’s Labour’s Lost

 

Well, that was the best play I’ve ever seen.

To be fair, I’m hardly a seasoned theater-goer, but I have gone to a few plays, including last year’s Shakespeare in the Park performance of “Into The Woods,” “West Side Story” on Broadway, an excellent off-Broadway production of “Our Town,” and 3 college plays of varying quality which were subsequently analyzed in my acting class. Ergo, I am an expert.

I’m basing my “best play I ever saw” declaration on the fact that out of all the plays I’ve seen, this one kept me the most consistently entertained.

I will freely admit that I am not a person with much patience for musicals. I find most musical numbers in plays to be too long and indulgent, and they often make me wish the play would just get on with the story. Also sometimes they could really use subtitles.

Not this one. The songs were so perfectly integrated into the story and necessary to the plot that I never found my patience being tested. There was also so much going on with the choreography and the costumes and performances that even if you spaced out a bit on the music or the lyrics, the hilarious visuals — a guy dressed in nothing but a fire-engine red speedo and cape, a singing tapdancer in only sequined sparkly short-shorts and vest, the four male leads spontaneously jumping into boy-band formation and serenading the girls with a 90’s pop ballad — would keep you engaged.

The utter ridiculousness of it actually made my British friends say, “This would never have been written in England. It is SO AMERICAN.”

I’m also not a big Shakespeare person. It takes a lot to make Shakespeare plays entertaining to me. Even Joss Whedon only succeeded in that sporadically for me with his “Much Ado About Nothing.”

This play kept me completely entertained. Most of the dialogue is the original Shakespeare, but it is interspersed with the songs, which are entirely colloquial, and there were occasional interjections of modern spoken dialogue as well, just enough to keep me from getting annoyed with the old-fashioned flowery stuff. (There are two uses of the F-bomb, just so you know.) The comic timing was great on all fronts, and like I said, the costuming and visual flair added so much.

I want to single out the performances of the male and female leads, Colin Donnell and Patti Murin, because they were fabulous. Murin’s “Princess” is like Elle Woods from Legally Blonde if Elle Woods were a Shakespearean princess with slightly more guile, and Donnell’s “Berowne” made me think of Hugh Jackman. He’s got a similar physique, similar facial structure, similar hair, similar voice — basically, he’s really really hot.

My only complaint is about the last five or so minutes of the play — it suddenly takes a turn for the Very Serious. I’ve been told by friends who know the original that that’s how Shakespeare wrote it, and I understand it on an intellectual level, but tonally it was extremely jarring to shift that suddenly from almost two hours of madcap, hilarious fun to five minutes of deathly seriousness, and it ends the play on a pretty flat note.

But, for the sake of not ending this review with a similar misstep, I’ll go back to one last major positive: the play is constantly snarking at itself, breaking the fourth wall, being incredibly meta about its playness. For example, in a song where one of the characters mocks rich people for being academic and snooty and privileged, there’s a line that goes something like, “Rich people pay for better plays that should be free!” (All of us enlightened citizens watching this free play hooted in appreciation.)

Those kinds of references and some other touches — like one of the actors pulling an audience member onto the set in the middle of a song without missing a beat — make me wonder if this play will ever be performed or filmed in any other venue aside from the Delacorte Theater for Shakespeare in the Park. I asked one of the actors, Bryce Pinkham (who played “Longaville”), outside the theater after the show, and he admitted he didn’t know, and that it did seem like a play designed for Shakespeare in the Park and nothing else.

Which would be too bad, because it’s the sort of play I’d pay full price to see again and that I’d love to show all my friends.

It’s only playing until August 18th. GO SEE IT.

Rating: 5/5