The Color Purple – New Broadway Cast Recording: Hell Yes!
As I walked by the Jacobs Theatre the other night, I stopped and stared at the building for five-minutes, drinking in the marquee and all of the lovely pictures of its current production. After all, it pisses God off if you walk by The Color Purple and you don’t notice it, so I wanted to be sure to remain in his good graces. It turns out that the New Broadway Cast Recording of this revival produced by Broadway Records deserves similar attention thanks to the gloriously reimagined orchestrations and the earth-shattering, heart soaring performances by this revival’s cast. I seldom think a revival is an improvement upon an original, but in this case, I suggest you get this recording immediately and not waste one-minute waiting to explore its near perfection.
The Color Purple is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning epistolary novel by Alice Walker about a black woman named Celie who endures more trials than Job while living in the rural south in the early 1900s. Abused, molested, beaten, treated like a slave by her cheating husband, bereft of her two children of incest, kept from her beloved sister Nettie as a punishment, Celie finds the strength and confidence to rise above her situation to claim family, love and a purpose for being. It’s a challenging and beautiful story, one that anyone who has been oppressed and beaten down can relate to. It’s emotional gravitas demanded that it become a musical sooner or later, which is exactly what happened in 2005 when composer-lyricists Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray and book-writer Marsha Norman assembled a very effective and faithful-to-the-source-material musical. The production, directed by Gary Griffin, was well-received, winning a Tony Award for actress LaChanze in the role of Celie and running a solid 910 performances. I, myself, saw it twice and loved it. Still, the production was big, often overstuffed, and sometimes the focus felt like it pulled away from the central character of Celie in order to meet the conventions (and technical trappings) of the typical Broadway musical.
Jump ahead ten-years, and director John Doyle has streamlined The Color Purple, trimming the score and book, as well as the production’s trappings and focusing the piece into a spare but powerful revival. The aperture of his director’s eye letting in the light of Celie and allowing her journey to be enough. It is. In the hands of Cynthia Erivo, Celie is a force of nature: not a bold and fiery lightning crack, but a slow trickling stream that wears away its walls slowly over time until it can accommodate the rush of an emotional flood. Erivo takes her time coming out of her shell, her choices reserved and well-tempered. This is apparent on the new cast recording where each song inches her closer to her self-actualization. By the time she sings her eleven-o’clock number “I’m Here”, she has earned our love and respect and we cry and cheer for Celie as she claims her self-esteem and her place in the world. It’s a song of throbbing honesty and yet it still retains aspects of Celie’s shyness and reticence to overflow with the beauty of who she is. It’s so perfectly crafted and exquisitely performed. Cynthia Erivo is the musical highlight of he 2015-2016 season. Let’s not forget her come Tony time.
The recording features two other performers who also shine with a brightness and sincerity. As Shug Avery, Celie’s husband’s mistress and one of the catalysts who helps Celie learn to love herself, Jennifer Hudson is brazen and beautiful. Confidence pours forth in each note she sings, and when she lends her vocal chords to the musical’s title song, you understand how she awakens something in Celie. Hudson shapes the words into affirmations that embrace and sooth us. Her Oscar for Dreamgirls was no accident. Danielle Brooks as Celie’s daughter-in-law Sofia is a presence to be reckoned with, especially in her big number “Hell, No!” Unable to understand women who let themselves be beaten and broken, Sofia teaches Celie about self-respect. Brooks infuses Sofia with a spine of steel and a palpable dignity. Attention should also be given to Joaquina Kalukango who pours forth love like a stream of honey in her portrayal of Celie’s sister Nettie. When these two sing together, their moments and music are tender and touching. This new recording mines the musical’s intimacy and honesty in a way that the original did not.
What I find particularly outstanding on this album is its clarity. Lyrics are crisp and clean, the orchestrations are balanced with the voices, and everything just sounds great. Broadway Records should be congratulated for recording this revival, but it should also be proud of how beautiful it is. They are regularly at the top of their game, but this just may be their best offering yet. Do not walk by this recording without stopping to take notice. When you are posed with the conundrum of whether or not to purchase this new recording, your answer should be nothing but “Hell, Yes!” Besides.... do you really want to piss God off?