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Powerhouse cast delivers the joy, sorrow, passion in sizzling ‘Color Purple’

Adrianna Hicks (as Celie, left) and N'Jameh Camara (as Nettie) and the North American tour cast of "The Color Purple." | Matthew Murphy

Adrianna Hicks (as Celie, left) and N'Jameh Camara (as Nettie) and the North American tour cast of "The Color Purple." | Matthew Murphy

When the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Color Purple” premiered in 2004, it was kind of a bloated mess. But people who thought it was the musical’s fault — not just the production’s — were proven wrong when director John Doyle mounted a theatrical do-over at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in 2013.

Perhaps best known for his chic “Sweeney Todd,” and for making Patti LuPone play the tuba, Doyle jettisoned most of “The Color Purple’s” pomp so he could hone in on the circumstance. The production was a hit, moving to Broadway in 2015, where it starred Jennifer Hudson and won a pair of Tonys. That revival is now playing in town through July 29.

‘The Color Purple’
★★★1⁄2
When: Through July 29
Where: Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress
Tickets: $27-$100
Info: BroadwayinChicago.com
Run time: Two hours, 25 minutes including one intermission

The story, adapted by fellow Pulitzer-winner Marsha Norman, covers decades in the life of Celie (played here by Adrianna Hicks), a poor black woman living in rural Georgia in the early part of the 20th century. The original production attempted to match the plot’s panoramic scope and left itself sputtering. Doyle, on the other hand, stripped away everything but the engine, resulting in a show that’s as powerful as it is elegant. Even the cavernous Auditorium Theatre isn’t vast enough to swallow it whole, though it does try.

The set, designed by Doyle, is a simple series of tiered platforms, out of which rise three towers of blasted, cross-hatched boards, wooden chairs hanging from them in the simple Shaker style. Celie’s life plays out with only a shift in lights (designed by Jane Cox) and a rearranging of chairs or bodies to mark the change between scenes.
The set makes for a stark and haunting tableau that captures both the barrenness of Celie’s early years and of a greater African-American community scarred by racism and misogyny. As things grow better for Celie later on (i.e. after intermission), Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes begin adding pops of bright, vibrant color. Doyle’s concept is simple, stately, and draws the audience’s attention back where it belongs: to the story, the actors, and the score.

Adrianna Hicks stars as Celie in the North American tour of "The Color Purple." | Matthew Murphy

Adrianna Hicks stars as Celie in the North American tour of “The Color Purple.” | Matthew Murphy

With music and lyrics by the trio of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, “The Color Purple” blends blues, gospel, and jazz together with classical musical theater stylings to produce a rousing songbook. It evokes both suffering and grace, joy as well as sorrow, and contains enough barn-burners that, frankly, it sometimes feels in danger of running out of barns altogether.

The story, following Walker’s novel, traces Celie’s life from her teenage years to middle-age. She begins as a poor, abused girl, pregnant (for the second time) by her nasty stepfather, who then gives away the baby once it’s born. The only light in Celie’s life is her younger sister, Nettie (N’jameh Camara), and when another, equally nasty man named Mister (Gavin Gregory) comes calling for a wife — his eyes set firmly on Nettie — Celie is married off to him instead.

Hicks heartbreakingly renders Celie’s hollow, thousand-yard stare as Mister beats her (literally) into submission. Then, when he tries to rape Nettie one day after a visit to her sister, Nettie vanishes from Celie’s life. She even stops writing — or, at least, Celie stops getting her letters — which leaves Celie convinced that Nettie is dead. As the years pass, Celie is slowly bought back from the brink, with help from Mister’s mistress, singer Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart, nailing the role played by Hudson on Broadway), and Celie’s hellfire-spewing step-daughter-in-law, Sofia, played by Carrie Compere in a ferocious performance, her sheer intensity and considerable comedic chops drawing cheers from the audience.

On the subject of cheering, “The Color Purple” is a remarkable display of building tension. All through act one, as Celie suffers horror after horror, shaking her previously immovable faith in God, the show winds tighter. But that overwhelming brutality only means a greater sense of relief come act two, when Celie finally takes things into her own hands.

It’s a relief that expresses itself in whoops, cheers, hollers, laughter, and several extra rounds of applause. Celie’s faith in God has been rewarded, and that reward is joyous. Not just for her, but for audiences, too.