Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond

Acclaimed, pared-down version of 'The Color Purple' to launch national tour in Baltimore

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Getting another chance, finding an unexpected path and taking it — that’s a major theme in “The Color Purple,” the musical based on the eventful Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker. It describes the history of the show pretty well, too.

This adaptation of Walker’s saga about an abused African-American woman’s extraordinary journey toward self-worth received a lukewarm response in the press when it opened on Broadway in 2005.

Although it ran for more than 900 performances and subsequently toured, the piece — book by Marsha Norman; music and lyrics by Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell and Allee Willis — never quite attained a firm artistic reputation.

Then came the extra chance, the unexpected path.

It led to a reconsidered version of “The Color Purple” that returned to Broadway in 2015 and garnered ecstatic reviews, as well as a Tony Award for best revival of a musical. A national tour officially launches Tuesday in Baltimore at the Hippodrome Theatre.

The story behind the revitalized musical starts in 2013, five years after the original run of “The Color Purple” ended in New York. David Babani, artistic director of London’s celebrated Menier Chocolate Factory, where many a musical has been born — or reborn — to widespread acclaim, approached seasoned, Scottish-born theater director John Doyle with an idea.

“When David said the project he had in mind for me was ‘The Color Purple,’ I told him, ‘You’re out of your mind,’” Doyle says. “I asked him why revive it so soon? And why me? I’m a white man in my 60s. This should be directed by a black woman.”

But Doyle’s reputation for a Midas touch with revivals made him an ideal candidate.

A recurring reservation in reviews of the first “Color Purple” production, directed by Gary Griffin, had to do with the staging’s hefty size and scope; it seemed bloated. That’s not an uncommon complaint about Broadway musicals.

“There’s a lot of fear and panic when a show is being [created], and a lot of money involved,” Doyle says. “Sometimes, when a problem comes up, there’s a feeling of ‘Let’s throw another 24 costumes at it and that will solve it.’”

Lavish or complicated stagings can certainly be successful, as Andrew Lloyd Webber has demonstrated on more than one occasion. But taking a less-is-more approach can also pay off handsomely, something that Doyle, a sort of musical dietitian, has demonstrated to great effect.

The director won particular admiration — and a 2007 Tony Award — for his slenderized revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” that involved actors doubling as the orchestra (Patti LuPone playing the tuba was quite the buzz-maker). And the Doyle-directed staging of Sondheim’s “Company,” similarly streamlined, won the 2006 Tony for best musical revival.

Such projects got Doyle tagged with the label “minimalist.”

“A minimalist with a scalpel who cuts too much,” Doyle adds. “But I didn’t set out to be a minimalist. Someone once said to me, ‘You’re really an essentialist.’ And I think that’s right. My job is to treat the material as if it was never done before. I try to get to the essence of what a work means to me.”

That attitude is what appealed to the musical’s producers, among them Oprah Winfrey (she was in the cast of Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film version of Walker’s novel). They welcomed the idea of the Menier Chocolate Factory providing a fresh look at the show.

Doyle, who also designed the revival, cut about a half-hour’s worth of material from the original work. The positive reception to the revival, which bowed in 2013 in London, led quickly to plans for New York.

A member of the ensemble in that Broadway production, Adrianna Hicks, now heads the tour cast.

“John Doyle is absolutely brilliant,” Hicks says. “His sense of simplicity and the way he strips down the show gets to the root of the story and lets us hear the voice of Alice Walker. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.”

The Texas-born, 28-year-old Hicks got to experience the Doyle slimming method in action on Broadway, since the director continued to wield that scalpel there. Turns out he wasn’t done even then.

“He’s still cutting minor things here and there, the tiniest things, just to tighten up the show for the national tour,” Hicks says. “And it just always gets better. I never say, ‘I wish he would not have cut that.’ I have no complaints.”

For Hicks, “The Color Purple” holds extra meaning. The original production was one of the first Broadway musicals she saw as a high school senior. Years later, she made her Broadway debut in the revival as a “swing” (an understudy who prepares multiple roles) and had more than one occasion to step into the lead role of Celie.

“I never thought this show would have such an impact on my life,” Hicks says. “It’s been so thrilling to step into Celie’s shoes officially for the tour. She is a character that a lot of people, male or female, can relate to — her insecurities; her wanting to have purpose. She goes through a lot.”

Celie endures horrid treatment from her stepfather and her husband in rural, early-20th-century Georgia, used as sexual chattel. She becomes cruelly separated from her beloved sister, Nettie, and learns the possibilities of tenderness from another woman, the singer Shug Avery. Gradually, Celie realizes she has a talent that can bring her independence.

“At the beginning, Celie feels it doesn’t matter what happens on earth because heaven goes on forever,” Hicks says. “She doesn’t realize there’s heaven on earth, too. Shug Avery helps her to get to that point, to understand, hey, God is all around you.”

In working to refine the focus on Celie and the other characters in “The Color Purple,” Doyle could draw on personal experiences.

“Celie comes from a poor family in a small, religious community,” the director says. “I come from a poor, small community and had a very religious upbringing. I meant to be a minister and went into the theater instead, but it’s still storytelling in a way.”

That appreciation for the religious sentiments in Walker’s novel and the musical helped Doyle fashion his revival concept.

“I found the elements of making good church in ‘The Color Purple,’ but I didn’t know that until we got on Broadway,” he says. “I’d no idea people would have such a profound reaction, black and white together, raising their hands to praise the Lord. We didn’t set out to be a revival meeting on any level, but it has that element in it.”

The director sees an element of redemption in the plot, too.

“What hit me very deeply,” he says, “is the notion of a person — a woman in this story, but any person, really — who feels beaten down by the world, who finally says ‘enough’ and, from that moment, has a resurrection. It’s a religious notion, and it is incredibly powerful.”

During the show’s time on Broadway, which ended Jan. 8, contemporary events could not help but add a certain resonance.

“A lot of the Broadway run coincided with the Black Lives Matter movement,” Doyle says. “And on the last night, Hillary Clinton came to see it, the first time she had been out since the election. That was extraordinary.”

Doyle sees the national tour, starting almost a year after that election, as well-timed.

“The story is as relevant — more relevant, sadly — than it has ever been,” the director says. “It’s so important right now, politically, racially. The [musical] asks the question: Do you want to beat people down, or give each other an opportunity in life? That’s what this piece is about. And I’m thrilled more people in the country are going to see it.”

If you go

“The Color Purple” opens Tuesday and runs through Oct. 22 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $38.25 to $213.25. Call 800-982-2787, or go to ticketmaster.com.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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