The 2005 musical of Alice Walker’s epochal novel The Color Purple, now revived at Toby’s Columbia, is a more-than-honorable attempt to capture the principal themes and incidents of the book in the musical medium. The book is a relatively short read, but an epic for all that, embracing, among other things, conflicts of the sexes, the mysteries of the changing human character, the fluidity of sexuality, colonialism, tribalism, religion, transgression and forgiveness, all in the context of African American and African history in the first four decades of the 20th Century. To make room for all this material, the book zooms ahead from the opening instant. The very first page drags us through one birth, another pregnancy, and the rape of the heroine, Celie, by the man she believes is her father. It seldom lets up from that point.
The standard musical format is not ideally adapted to carry so much important freight. A century of development of the format has geared our expectations. We look for a structure mainly built of songs that are either hummable or styled like operatic recitative. To be hummable, the songs must have hooks, and repeat those hooks often enough to sink them in the audience’s ears. And the recitative must be of a certain quality that somewhat substitutes for absent hooks, for instance motifs (see almost anything by Sondheim). In short, there is a built-in bias toward sticking around with plot and musical points long enough to make the flavor last.
The Color Purple doesn’t and probably couldn’t work that way, even musically. It has to rush forward, covering new ground, even in the midst of songs. The songs, by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, three journeyman songsmiths, are heavy with recitative but light on operatic intelligence. Instead, they gravitate toward pastiche, for instance jitterbug music, African tribal dance (AFRICAN HOMELAND), or agricultural work songs (BIG DOG). There are two or three songs that are traditional big numbers, two of them anthems (I’M HERE and THE COLOR PURPLE). (In a sense, they’re pastiche as well, since almost every first and second act in almost every show closes with an anthem.)
Hence, the selling-point of The Color Purple is not really the music, which is always serviceable but not often more than that. Instead, it is the book, by Marsha Norman, and of course the underlying Alice Walker novel, that give the show life. It needs to be acted, watched, and appreciated more like a play than like a musical. Fortunately, the Toby’s production, directed by Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey, who usually helm true musicals for Toby’s, are well able to muster the resources to serve up this eminently play-like production. The leads (Dayna Marie Quincy as Celie, Jessica Coleman as her sister Nettie, Mark Anthony Hall as Celie’s husband Mister, Shayla Simmons as Shug, the bisexual lover of both Celie and Mister, Theresa A. Cunningham as Celie’s friend Sofia, David Little as Sofia’s husband Harpo, and Ashley Johnson as Harpo’s girlfriend Squeak) are all terrific actors, and Simmons, Cunningham and Johnson are also great singers, with very separate kinds of vocal missions to perform. Simmons is called upon to be sultry, Cunningham to channel the gravelly-voiced Bessie Smith, and Johnson, as her character’s name Squeak implies, is called upon to the explore the nasal upper register pioneered by the late Nell Carter. It is one of the weaknesses of the show as a musical that Celie, the central character, is given only routine singing chores (she gets to sing each of the anthems at least once). It matters very little to the show as a play.