Ironic that word of James Frey’s new multi-book deal should be in the news at the same time The Color Purple is hitting the stage at the Kennedy Center. Not that the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alice Walker has had to endure any of the critical derision that A Million Little Pieces has had to endure. Frey, you may recall, joined that Hall of Infamy reserved for authors whose memoirs were found to have fallen a bit more on the fiction side of nonfiction.
But both Frey’s book and The Color Purple share a media godmother: Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey had endorsed Pieces – a mark of approval that has become the literary equivalent to the Good Housekeeping Seal – before bringing the then-disgraced author back for a nationally televised trip to the woodshed.
Make no mistake, no one is going to be taken to the woodshed for this musical adaptation of The Color Purple.
But it’s difficult to not notice the continued power afforded by the endorsement of one of the most powerful women in media, particularly when her name tops the marquee. As in: “Oprah Winfrey Presents The Color Purple starring Fantasia, The Musical about Love.”
This is the challenge of The Color Purple, a solid and enjoyable musical that is not so slightly overshadowed and occasionally over-promised by the names surrounding it.
First, there is the presence of Winfrey, whose name can be seen as either a stamp of excellence or a marketing gimmick meant to sell seats. Look beyond that.
Lining the Kennedy Center is the gauntlet of vendors hawking T-shirts and program books and logo-splashed merchandise in a fashion that calls to mind a carnival midway. Look beyond that.
And the marketing posters? Featuring an almost-literally glowing Fantasia Barrino, the woman who the nation first met as part of the pop juggernaut American Idol? Bright-red dress. A shock of carefully styled blonde hair. A smile broader than seems humanly possible.
Look beyond that polished poster image of the artist, but don’t look beyond Fantasia. She is stunning. A mature and impressive stage actress with a voice capable of sending shivers down the spine of even that person with the cheapest seat in the farthest row back, Fantasia reprises the role of Celie that she first performed in 2007 on Broadway.
Fantasia’s Celie (or, more accurately, Walker’s Celie as the transformation is so complete) is the point around which The Color Purple revolves. Hers are the shoulders upon which this story of violence and redemption weighs most heavily.
Shunted by an abusive father out of his house and into the home of an equally abusive husband, Celie is ripped away from her devoted sister Nettie (LaToya London, also a season three American Idol alum) and drawn into a world that appears to offer nothing except more hurt, more heartache and more wanting.
While well-rendered and perfectly executed by the cast members who join Fantasia on the Kennedy Center’s Opera House stage, the musical adaptation of The Color Purple is a shallow pool. A consistent expanse capable of reflecting back to the viewer what it is they most want to see.
For those looking to draw strength and uplift, there is Celie’s moving performance of “I’m Here.”
A love story? It can be found in Celie and Shug Avery’s (Angela Robinson) “What About Love?”
Comedy? Sofia, (Felicia P. Fields, nominated for a Tony for her Broadway performance of the role) and her sisters’ deafening and final “Hell No.” (Hell, pretty much anytime Field’s is on stage is a call to attention.)
There’s even a bit of boy-lesque with the stomp tough “Big Dog,” though this is a show that belongs almost entirely to the women.
This malleability is afforded because, despite its house-filling, deep-throated gospel and blues voice, The Color Purple is largely comfortable and familiar.
In this case, that’s a pretty good thing. The Color Purple makes for an entertaining and memorable evening at the theater. There will be songs that will stick with you, performances that will make even the most grim audience member chuckle, and even a rousing “A-men” to round the whole night off.