An Oprah-atic Musical

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

During the last 25 years, The Color Purple — once an eloquent story about a woman named Miss Celie — has become a full-blown, American institution.

To recap: in 1982 Alice Walker published The Color Purple, an epistolary novel set in America's south during the early 20th century. The next year, The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize, making Walker the first black woman to win that award for fiction.

Two years later, The Color Purple became a Hollywood film directed by Steven Spielberg. It was a big, year-end prestige release, earning 11 Oscar nominations and grossing just shy of $100 Million. Most importantly, it catapulted two of its actors into superstardom: Whoopi Goldberg as Miss Celie, and Oprah Winfrey (in her screen debut) as Sophia.

Twenty years later, in 2006, The Color Purple became further ingrained in American culture due to a Broadway musical version with the words "Oprah Winfrey Presents" above the title. It's still running on Broadway today, and last month the touring production brought the show to Los Angeles.

cast.jpg This singing and dancing Color Purple is grand American myth-making, as big and broad in its approach as classic musicals like Oklahoma! or The Music Man. It also is more faithful to Walker's book than the hazy, sometimes silly film. Despite the moving performances of Goldberg and Winfrey, Spielberg's film bathed Walker's story in warm nostalgia and glossed over one of the book's important subplots: Miss Celie's sexual awakening, inspired and reciprocated by another woman, Shug Avery.

This is not to say that The Color Purple: The Musical ever comes close to achieving the singular voice of Miss Celie in Walker's prose. The book remains a work of considerable artistic merit, where the musical is strangely artless. Marsha Norman, who herself won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983 (the same year as Walker) has efficiently paired the novel into simple scenes, with her script unfolding quickly (and often randomly) with little time for anything remotely poetic. Some of the book's better lines are preserved; but Norman's version is less a stage adaptation and more a blueprint for a giant commercial product.

Likewise the score and staging. Every piece of the production seems to have micro-managed to wring out as much pathos and "you-go-girl" sentiment as possible. The result is a piece of polished entertainment that clearly appeals to audiences, but at times it makes this deeply human story feel soulless and mechanical.

felicia_fields.jpg What makes The Color Purple come alive is not its music or stagecraft, but rather its performances. Here at the Ahmanson, the cast includes two first-rate achievements. Jeannette Bayardelle is a great singer and she skillfully inhabits the lead role, making Miss Celie's transformation from pushover to pants pioneer fully believable. Not surprisingly though, the show-stealer is Felicia P. Fields in the role that made Oprah a star: Sofia. Fields gives a larger-than-life performance, one that justly won her a Tony Award on Broadway. She turns the number "Hell No" into a minor show-stopper and makes Sofia's feminism-with-a-fist affably irresistible.

The Color Purple is rarely boring thanks to its talented and energetic cast. More memorable than The Color Purple's mediocre music and script, is the fact that the musical transforms a book about African American empowerment into a truly universal (not to mention profitable) story of redemption.

The Color Purple: The Musical runs through March 9 at the Ahmanson Theatre.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Photos: Paul Kolnik