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

An affecting 'Color Purple' features sterling cast, inspired direction at Hippodrome

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

When Adrianna Hicks, playing the supremely tested Celie in the revelatory revival of “The Color Purple” now at the Hippodrome Theatre, lets a smile light her long-clouded face and sings “Yes, I’m beautiful, and I’m here,” the jolt couldn’t be much greater if lightning struck the place. Catharsis rarely looks and sounds so sweet.

It’s safe to say the whole musical has never been more compelling than it is in the version unveiled on Broadway a couple of years ago — the version that officially launched a national tour this week in Baltimore, with a terrific cast.

The show’s cumulative power stems, of course, from the 1982 Alice Walker novel that inspired it. The author touches many a nerve with this saga of an African-American woman in early-20th-century Georgia, abused and belittled by men who see in her physical plainness further justification for their behavior. Men who cannot fathom that she has intrinsic value, let alone talent.

How Celie survives a steady barrage of setbacks is the stuff of affecting fiction. And affecting film, as Steven Spielberg’s cinematic treatment in 1985 affirmed. The story clearly has the ingredients for good musical theater, too, though that quality wasn’t fully appreciated when “The Color Purple” first appeared on a Broadway stage in 2005.

It took a revival a decade later to put this musical more firmly on the map. Trimmed and re-focused by director and designer John Doyle, characters spring to life from the get-go (the original overture is among the jettisoned elements, allowing for a clean start). Incidents and issues unfold at such a clip that you may not even notice how quickly you are drawn into a tale of dreams lost and found, lives cleaved and bound.

Doyle is as concise with his set design as he is with everything else. A few tall walls, covered with diverse chairs, fill the background. The action unfolds on simple wooden platforms. The prevailing palette is sepia, a tone reinforced by Ann Hould-Ward’s expert costumes.

Dialogue seems extra vivid against that spare, muted background (Marsha Norman wrote the musical’s book), while the score — music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray — sounds more vital and communicative than ever.

I wouldn’t complain about a slightly longer show (it runs less than 2½ hours, with intermission). I’d devote any additional minutes to providing more of a setup for Celie’s pivotal entrepreneurial breakthrough in Act 2, for example, or maybe giving greater clarity to the passage of time in a plot that spans four decades.

But such concerns prove negligible in light of how beautifully the redemptive journey in “The Color Purple” registers, how deeply its fundamental message about family, faith and self-worth resonates.

A powerful aspect of this production is the way Doyle subtly reiterates the it-takes-a-village philosophy, bringing the ensemble into the picture at key moments, even if only as silent witnesses to Celie’s traumas and disappointments.

Given the way things turn out in “The Color Purple,” how tattered threads still manage to be woven into something warm and strong, cynical types might be inclined to dismiss the whole thing. But the staging works hard to counteract such resistance, to keep the arc of the drama feeling natural and inevitable — an effort the tour cast undertakes winningly.

Hicks captures the young, resigned Celie as movingly as the older, surer woman. She is wonderful dispensing deadpan, perfectly terse responses to Celie’s insufferable, if salvageable, husband, Mister (played with flair and depth by Gavin Gregory). And Hicks sings with an enveloping radiance, whether going full-throttle in the most gospel-infused music or filing her voice down to a slender, intimate thread.

Carla R. Stewart commands the stage as Shug Avery, the jazz singer who bursts into Celie’s constricted world and knows just how to loosen it. Stewart gives a melting account of “Too Beautiful for Words,” the musical’s most disarming moment.

Another powerhouse portrayal comes from Carrie Compere as the free-spirited Sofia, who puts the tough in tough love with Mister’s eager son Harpo (a dynamic J. Daughtry).

And note all the telling inflections — in tone, phrase and facial expression — from the three ever-watchful Church Ladies (Angela Birchett, Bianca Horn, Brit West). The rest of the ensemble also measures up firmly. Production numbers are nimbly danced and sung; the women have quite a field day with “Miss Celie’s Pants,” an irresistible evocation of the big band era.

Conducted from a keyboard by Darryl Archibald, a tight group of musicians revels in the richness of Joseph Joubert’s orchestrations, one more factor that makes it feel so good to be bathed in “The Color Purple.”

If you go

“The Color Purple” runs through Sunday 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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