When a fallen woman screams out “dear God” from the floor of the stage of the cavernous Pantages Theatre, you wonder whether there’s a chance it’s actually rousing enough that some heavenly being might indeed be listening. Emotion and technique swallow the audience in the trimmed, tight revival of The Color Purple, making its way around the country after a rapturous 2015 reception (and two Tony Awards) on Broadway. Unlike the slight dip in excellence that can occasionally plague a national tour, there’s likely no better touring company on the road right now than the players who opened director John Doyle’s production in its Los Angeles leg on May 29.
With Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray’s score looking ever more likely to become a theater classic, The Color Purple is a show that relies heavily on its ensemble, effortlessly characterized here and filled with the kind of exquisite voices and commanding stage presences that turn unnamed faces into memorable individuals. But they are led in sound and spirit by Adrianna Hicks, who formidably steps into the lead role of Celie after serving as a swing on Broadway. That part, as imagined in Doyle’s effectively swift production, turned Tony winner Cynthia Erivo into a stage star; Hicks is, happily, every bit as powerful and precise as her predecessor. She plays the decade-spanning role of besieged protagonist Celie with a different sense of introspection — here, she is more hollow than seething, more toughened than traumatized by the world around her. Hicks’ choices expertly build out a longer arc for Celie’s eventual emergence as a transformed woman, culminating not just in a cathartic “I’m Here” that shakes the rafters but, rather, a “Miss Celie’s Pants” that steals some of her own blissful thunder.
While Hicks contends with able foils in supporting players like Gavin Gregory’s tragic Mister and Carla R. Stewart’s vexing Shug, Hicks is by far in her best company with Carrie Compere, whose interpretation of Celie’s fearless friend Sofia is the finest take on the role I’ve seen. Compere shines opposite an animated J. Daughtry as her lover Harpo, the two feeding the audience like a well-seasoned sitcom couple, but Compere’s creation becomes something else entirely (long before her physical downfall) when she dominates the stage with a slower, heavier “Hell No!” She sings about sisterhood and self-worth, and when she’s joined by the female members of the ensemble, the song becomes an anthem perhaps mightier than even intended. To say nothing of Compere’s impressive vocals, if “I’m Here” in a post-Time’s Up world is explosive, “Hell No” is meteoric and a surprise showstopper in act one.
Arriving amid a moment when several touring productions are operating at the top of their game (Hamilton and Something Rotten! among them), The Color Purple feels the most urgent of anything currently on the road, a fine-tuned and provocative piece worth absorbing. Perhaps it’s an even better compliment to argue that this production is a compelling case for a reverse course back to Broadway; upon the tour’s conclusion, there is no conceivable reason why this important and effective production should not find itself right back in New York where its warmth, talent, and necessary messages about self can stand to dig deep into the earth, settle in, and continue showing what the fuss is about. A