Every now and then, when I’m feeling particularly down, I’ll queue up this segment from the 2016 Tony Awards: a performance from the 2015 revival of The Color Purple featuring Cynthia Erivo delivering one of the most incredible performances you’ll ever see. Honestly, it’s amazing. I cry every time I watch it—with joy, with admiration, with sweet relief—and I’ve watched it quite a few times.
This response to just a snippet of a show I’d not seen yet had me on high alert for when the production would finally come through Chicago (the original Broadway production set up for an extended run here back in 2007). That time is finally here, as Broadway in Chicago presents The Color Purple at the Auditorium Theatre through July 29.
This production is the latest incarnation of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, following a film adaptation (in 1985 by Steven Spielberg) and an original Broadway run from 2005 to 2008. That first go-round did nicely for itself, logging 11 Tony Award nominations and grossing over $100M in ticket sales. It makes sense, then, that producers would be more than happy to have another go at it, mounting a revival just seven years after the original production closed.
This version balances a stark, minimal set—where various wooden chairs are the main vehicle for staging and choreography—with incredibly robust performances of a heavy yet powerful story. Set in the early 20th century, we meet Celie (here played with vulnerability and strength by Adrianna Hicks, the same role Erivo mastered in the clip above), a shy young woman who’s just given birth to her second child by the man she believes to be her father. Believed to be good for not much of anything, he sends her off to marry Mister (Gavin Gregory), a brutish farmer who expects her to look after his children and take his abuse without so much as a peep. Meanwhile, her dear sister Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) gets the brunt of their father’s advances, then Mister’s too, who kicks her out when she tries to resist, telling Celie she’ll never see Nettie again.
Mister, like the rest of the men in town, is in love with Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart), a beautiful torch singer who’s made something of herself in the world outside the small Georgia town where our story takes place. Celie and Shug strike up an unlikely friendship, falling into a kind of love that defies a label like “gay;” they are bonded as sisters, as comrades, as each other’s everything, no matter the men around them or the world they live in that tries to separate them.
We follow them over the course of a few decades, as this tight-knit if dysfunctional community grows and changes with the times, facing racism, poverty and ever-dwindling hope for something better with a resolve that defies probability. By the second act, Celie is a grown woman and her relationship with Shug has ignited a confidence even she didn’t know she had inside her. By the time Hicks delivers that show-stopping number linked above (I’m Here, an anthem of arrival and defiance), we’re so wrapped up in her journey of a few highs but mostly lows that it won’t surprise you at all to hear that, at the performance I attended, the audience at the Auditorium Theatre applauded so loudly for so long that the production was stalled for a full minute before the actors could carry on with the next scene.
It’s quite common for strong stories in other media (books, films) to be adapted into Broadway musicals, though with varying degrees of success (see: Mean Girls). One would be forgiven for thinking that a story as wrenching as Celie’s wouldn’t exactly make for an entertaining musical, of all things. And yet, as evidenced by the show’s longevity and accolades both during its first run and this revival (Erivo won a Tony, as did the show for Best Revival of a Musical), The Color Purple is built around songs and staging that only amplify the story’s strengths, each not only appropriate to the gravity of the proceedings but capable of elevating them.
Shows of this caliber don’t come through Chicago often, as Broadway in Chicago’s seasons are typically heavy on kitsch and commercialism (I’m looking at you, The Cher Show) over substance. But like the first tour of Dear Evan Hanson that arrives in Chicago in February, The Color Purple is a must-see while it’s here.
The Color Purple runs through July 29 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Tickets and more information available here.
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