At the beginning of "The Color Purple," two young girls sit in a giant, gnarled tree that dominates the stage of the vast Broadway Theatre.
It's a sweet-tempered image of sisterhood that haunts this respectful, occasionally roof-raising musical adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of female empowerment.
The show, which opened Thursday, remains surprisingly faithful to Walker's story of triumph over adversity set in rural Georgia. It is sometimes too faithful, as its adapters attempt to cram a lot of plot into this careful stage version, meticulously directed by Gary Griffin.
Walker's heartfelt novel revels in its own idiosyncratic style, written as letters, many of them by its uneducated heroine, Celie. This stage version could use a little of the adventurousness of its literary predecessor.
In many ways, "The Color Purple" is an old-fashioned musical. For example, there is an honest-to-goodness overture, a rarity these days. And It has been lavishly produced, including some rustic homespun settings by design wizard John Lee Beatty and colorful period costumes by Paul Tazewell.
The musical primarily focuses on Celie's journey from abuse to independence and self-esteem, an arduous trek that takes some four decades. from 1909 to 1949.
One problem for the show is that Celie is a difficult character to turn into a musical-theater icon. For much of the evening, she is stoic, even passive, not the kind of person who would naturally burst into song. Those musical moments are left to the people - both men and women - who surround her.
It's to the credit of LaChanze, who portrays Walker's waiflike creation, that Celie holds her own with the other, more flamboyant characters. The actress has a warm, wide grin and a touching vulnerability that enables her to command attention despite a paucity of musical numbers.
Her big moment, in fact, is more dramatic than musical when she finally has the courage to tell off her violent, ill-tempered husband, played by Kingsley Leggs. Curiously, it's spoken, not sung.
Marsha Norman, author of "'night, Mother," adapted Walker's book for the stage. She preserves ail the novel's dramatic highlights, and because of that, "The Color Purple" becomes a showcase for its female performers, including a trio of small-town biddies. The three are a Southern-fried Greek chorus who cluck and pluck over Celie's tribulations and, what is more important, help to reinforce a plot that sometimes threatens to get out of control.
Among the large distaff supporting cast, the standout is the scene-stealing Felicia P. Fields as Sofia. It's the role played in the 1985 Steven Spielberg film version of the novel by Oprah Winfrey, now one of the show's Broadway producers.
Sofia is the antithesis of Celie. She's a woman who doesn't take guff from anyone, including her compliant husband, Harpo. Fields' big anthem -a ditty called "Hell No!" - musically jump-starts the show midway through the first act. Fields growls her way through the song with comic determination.
The musical doesn't shy away from its lesbian subplot, specifically Celie's attachment to the hedonistic Shug Avery. This blues singer strikes a chord with both women and men, including Celie's husband, and the sexy Elisabeth Withers-Mendes plays her with raunchy delight.
More problematic is the role of Nettie, Celie's beatific sibling, played by the lovely Renee Elise Goldsberry. She's a saintly creature - the woman goes off to Africa to become a missionary - and thus less interesting than the show's more earthy characters. When the musical switches to that exotic locale, the production slows down, stopped by a long tribal dance segment choreographed by Donald Byrd.
The men are left with less to do, even though Leggs, as the abusive husband, gets a musical moment of redemption. And Harpo (Brandon Victor Dixon) has to share his big comedy number, a randy song called "Any Little Thing," with the formidable Sofia.
The score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, is a melting pot of melodies and lyrics. Eclectic to the extreme, it ranges from the blues to gospel to soul and more traditional Broadway sounds. There's even one pop power ballad, "What About Love?" This number, sung in the show by LaChanze and Withers-Mendes, closes the first act, and is destined for major airplay.
Fans of Walker's novel most likely will not be disappointed in this reverent stage retelling and will embrace it heartily as a live souvenir of the original. Others may crave a little more theatrical excitement.
Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" is the story of Celie, who from the age of 12 is raped repeatedly by her father, and bears him two children he gives away. When she is 14, he turns her over to an angry, abusive husband who expects her to raise his unruly children by another woman.
Making a musical of it raises one huge question: What in all this is there to sing about?
Marsha Norman, who wrote the book for the musical, and Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, who have written the score, do not seem to have figured it out.
The show alternates uneasily between its painful subject matter and cliched attempts at humor, all of which places a huge burden on the extraordinarily talented, hard-working cast.
The enormously endearing LaChanze plays Celie, who overcomes the hardships of her early years to become a successful entrepreneur and bring peace to all the elements of her difficult, bumptious past.
The material never really gives LaChanze a chance to take flight.
The story itself is part of the problem.
Walker's novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 (the same year Norman won a Pulitzer for her creaky play "'Night Mother"), seems in retrospect like a '70s feminist screed.
The major male characters - Celie's hateful father and her even more hateful husband - are African-American versions of Simon Legree, the savage slave dealer of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
As a corollary of the hatred of the opposite sex that underpinned much feminist rhetoric, Celie discovers true love only in the arms of another woman, a blues singer named Shug Avery, who was once her husband's lover.
Celie's agonizing life is balanced by the journeys of her sister Nettie, who goes to Africa with the family of a missionary, who, happily, is the man who adopted Celie's children.
This allows for moments of welcome relief at the beginning of the second act, when we spend some time in Africa. For this scene, the music reflects the radiant harmonies we associate with Hugh Masakela.
Ultimately, Celie finds economic success when she uses her skills as a seamstress to manufacture a line of comfortable pants both men and women can wear.
But Russell, Willis and Bray do not have the skill to find the music in Celie's pain. They are more successful in the brief African scene. They are also good at parodying various pop styles via a trio of church-lady caricatures who pop up every 10 minutes or so to provide comic commentary. The result is a stylistic mess.
Interestingly, the most appealing character is Sofia, who marries one of Celie's stepsons and undergoes almost as much humiliation as Celie. This was the role Oprah Winfrey (one of the show's producers) played in the 1985 Steven Spieiberg film.
As Sofia, Felicia P. Fields steals the show just as Oprah stole the movie, partly because of her own immense talent, partly because it is the most fully created role.
Elisabeth Withers-Mendes is wonderfully seductive as Shug. In the sadly underwritten role of Nettie, Renee Elise Goldsberry provides her customary magic. As the church ladies, Kimberly Ann Harris, Maia Nkenge Wilson and Virginia Ann Woodruff are delicious.
Paul Tazeweil's costumes provide a stunning panoply of African-American styles of the first half of the last century. John Lee Beatty's sets keep the story moving fluidly and they are beautifully lit by Brian MacDevitt.
The cast's high spirits give the show great energy and joy, but it never seems more than a mechanically devised entertainment. It doesn't really convey the sadness or the strength of the experience it tries to capture.
Oprah Winfrey's favorite new musical -"The Color Purple," the movie of which made her a star – opened last night, blessed by glowing performances from a sisterhood of talent, led by a gut-wrenching LaChanze.
Still, Alice Walker's 1982 epistolary novel of the rural South, made up mostly of Celie's letters to God, remains a strange candidate for Broadway musicalization.
Then again, it was an odd bird upon which to base the 1985 movie, yet Steven Spielberg made it fly to glory.
Certainly, throughout the first act, it seems Oprah's abiding faith (and that of her many co-producers) might prove justified - until the second act slowly subsides into a mess of molasses.
Even then, the performances, particularly the singing, continue to pile up points.
To be fair, some of the dramatic faults stem from Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Her feminist saga of a poor, young black woman's journey of survival from vicious male oppression to vindication, self-esteem and joy, is trickily episodic to put up on stage.
Much of it is also bleak in tone, if spunkily pink in sentiment.
The show tries to strike out bleak more or less from the beginning, with the God-embracing opening, "Mysterious Ways," a lively cross between the finale of Alvin Ailey's spiritual-inspired ballet "Revelations" and the big gospel start of the musical "Purtie." So far, so good - indeed, very good.
The music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray run the rough gamut from gospel, blues and generic Broadway pop - smartly held together by Jonathan Tunick's homogenizing orchestrations – and generally do the story's contrivances more than proud.
The lead producer and show's instigator, Scott Sanders, and his book writer, Marsha (“ ‘Night Mother") Norman, apparently wanted to take the musical deeper into Walker's novel than the movie.
It now stresses the regeneration and redemption of the men, particularly Mister (Kingsley Leggs), Celie's callous, bullying husband, and Harpo (Brandon Victor Dixon), her stepson. It also places more emphasis on the novel's sexuality, notably Celie's revelatory lesbian affair with the sexy blues singer Shug Avery (a gorgeously glowing Elisabeth Withers-Mendes).
The difficulty is that Norman never achieves the coherency or radiance of Spieiberg's visual and dramatic realization. Here the story seems disjointed, and after the intermission, almost blindly sentimental.
The enthusiastic staging by Gary Griffin is little helped by Donald Byrd's lackluster dances, although the ingeniously versatile settings by John Lee Beatty, the costumes by Paul Tazewell and Brian MacDevitt's lighting are all effective.
What in the final count carries the show, and what you carry out from the theater, is the commercially yet adroitly conceived music, the vibrant singing from the entire cast, and the individual performances that in many instances transcend the material.
The modestly quiet brilliance of Lachance's Celie - like moonlight on sapphire; the blunt, bruised bluster of Fields' sexy Sofia (which was Oprah's role in the movie) and Withers-Mendes' flapper siren, Shug, dominate the evening.
Yet special flamboyant tints to "The Color Purple" are also added by Leggs as Celie's brutish husband (who has to survive the show's most maudlin moment with his awful number "Mister's Song"), Dixon's charmingly weak Harpo, who shares with Sofia the suggestive, show-stopping duet, "Any Little Thing," and Krisha Marcano as the hopefully sparkish Squeak.
Finally, one cannot forget the choral, moral, comic threesome of Kimberly Ann Harris, Maia Nkenge Wilson and Virginia Ann Woodruff. Like this musical itself, this trio of ladies is neatly calculated, brashly obvious – yet somehow, wickedly winning.
Time doesn't just fly in the exhaustingly eventful world of "The Color Purple," the musical adaptation of the Alice Walker novel and film of the same title that opened last night at the Broadway Theater. It threatens to break the sound barrier. In faithfully adapting Ms. Walker's incident-crammed 1982 Pulitzer Prizewinner about Southern black women finding their inner warriors, the show's creators have fashioned a bright, shiny and muscular storytelling machine that is above all built for speed.
So much plot, so many years, so many characters to cover in less than three hours. Or, as one of the many vibrant heroines sings, prettily papering over a gap of eight years, "So many winters gray and summers blue." From the brass-warmed opening bars of its eclectic overture, this musical has an on-your-mark, get-set quality that promises that pages will be flying off the calendar as if in a tornado.
Watching this beat-the-clock production summons the frustrations of riding through a picturesque stretch of country in a supertrain like the TGV. The landscape looks seductively lush and varied; the local populace seems lively and inviting, like people you might want to know; you can even hear tantalizing snatches of folks singing in an intriguing idiom as they go about their work. But it all passes by in a watercolor blur. This show isn't stiff and anemic like its chief musical competition this season, "The Woman in White" (another plot-crammed adaptation of a novel). But it never slows down long enough for you to embrace it.
Would that "The Color Purple" did take time to stop and smell the lilacs. Directed by Gary Griffin - with a book by Marsha Norman and songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray - this show is blessed with a surfeit of performing talent. There's not a clinker among the major cast members, led by LaChanze as the downtrodden, man-mangled Celie, whose sexual and social awakening over four decades gives the story its shape.
As for the rest of the production, there's a sumptuousness throughout that, while hardly true to the harrowing bleakness of the early chapters of Ms. Walker's novel, does bring to mind the enjoyably hokey cinematic ravishments of Steven Spielberg's 1985 film version. (You don't ask yourself, as you often do on Broadway these days, how the show could cost as much as it did - $10 million, in this case.) John Lee Beatty's sets summon rural poverty in Georgia in the early 20th century with a romanticizing, fairy-tale sense of wonder, enhanced by Brian MacDevitt's sunset-and-starshine lighting and Paul Tazewell's handsome period costumes.
The trio of songwriters for "Purple," all making their Broadway debuts, have backgrounds mostly in pop, film and television. And they clearly have a knack for clingy, synthetically tasty melodies adorned with spicy regional accents (rather like Cajun-style Kentucky Fried Chicken.) Or at least I think they do, since no sooner is a song started than it is killed to make way for yet another narrative-propelling number. (Ditto with Donald Byrd's sprightly fits of choreography.)
Thanks to the cast's spirited way with a song, "Purple" strikes some sparks during its long and winding journey. But it takes a concentration and leisure the show lacks to fan sparks into a steady flame.
The overwhelming breathlessness of this production is probably unavoidable, given its determination to hew as close as possible to its source. Ms. Norman is an eminent playwright whose " 'night, Mother" won the Pulitzer for drama the same year that Ms. Walker's novel did for fiction. And Ms. Norman brings a refreshing if dogged writerly respect to Ms. Walker's work.
But the novel - which contrasts the lives of stay-at-home Celie and her traveling missionary sister, Nettie (Renée Elise Goldsberry) - covers not only four decades but also three continents. Related largely in bluntly vernacular letters written by Celie to God and to her sister, the book's central focus is the feminist evolution of Celie, who at 14 is sold in marriage to an abusive older man (called Mister and played here by Kingsley Leggs), after having given birth to two children by the man she believes to be her father.
"The Color Purple," though, is also the story of other, more innately forceful women from whom Celie gathers the strength to find herself. In addition to Nettie, who discovers her ethnic identity while a missionary in Africa, there's the strapping and defiant Sofia (Felicia P. Fields), Celie's stepdaughter-in-law, a role created on film by Oprah Winfrey (a producer and invaluable promoter of this show). And the voluptuous, pleasure-seeking Shug Avery (Elisabeth Withers-Mendes), a saloon singer and sometime-mistress of Mister, initiates Celie into the joys of the flesh and is most important to her growing self-esteem.
It is to the credit of each of these confident actresses that their characters register as emphatically and winningly as they do in the midst of the narrative rush. Ms. Fields and Ms. Withers-Mendes both exude a sensual energy that you can feel the audience wants to luxuriate in. (The same impression is cut, in a sunnier vein, by Brandon Victor Dixon as Sofia's cheery husband.) But every time they work toward musical climaxes, that darn hydra-headed Story intervenes with another plot twist.
Many of these are related by a hyper-lively quartet of gossiping church ladies. Others, set in Africa, come from Nettie's letters to Celie. Even a big dramatic aria like "Mister's Song" winds up spending an awful lot of time recapping events the audience already knows and undercutting Mr. Leggs's best dramatic efforts.
Mr. Griffin, acclaimed for his ingeniously miniature productions of big-scale works like "Pacific Overtures" and "My Fair Lady," emerges mostly as a skillful traffic conductor here. He keeps things moving at a jaunty clip, even when the events are as ugly as rape, domestic abuse and racial violence. This discrepancy would probably be jolting if you had time to think about it.
Amid the whirlwind of story lines, LaChanze holds admirably steady in what is a rather thankless part. Since Celie spends much of the show being scared and downtrodden, LaChanze must hide her considerable natural light under a bushel of homeliness and self-effacement. And her long-delayed survivor's anthem, for which she is allowed to pump up the volume, is unfortunately a generic power song. (Sofia's truncated "Hell No!" and Celie's top-40-ready duet with Shug, "What About Love?," are better.)
At the show's end, Celie has acquired, in addition to gray hairs and a personal fortune through the making and selling of pants for women, an air of matriarchal dignity that she wears like vintage couture. And it occurred to me that somewhere along the way in her odyssey of survival and triumph, Celie had morphed into a heroine of the kind of inspirational women's fiction found in airport bookstores, written by Barbara Taylor Bradford and Danielle Steel.
These are authors I would never have thought to compare to Alice Walker. But such things happen in adaptations that emphasize sheer story over sensibility. Devotees of Ms. Walker's novel would be better off thinking of this show less as "The Color Purple" than as, say, "Celie: A Woman of Independent Means."
'The Color Purple," which opened last night at the Broadway Theatre with Oprah Winfrey's approving brand on the marquee, is a big, beautifully cast and produced, middle-of-the-road musical adaptation of Alice Walker's 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
It also is awfully nicey-nice for an epic about racism and black-on-black sexual abuse in Georgia in the first half of the 20th century. The show loses its way in the second act and, ultimately, leaves no cliché unturned. But this is not merely the first new old-fashioned American musical of the season. It may well be built to last.
For all its familiar story and sensibility, this is surely the first mainstream musical to make a first-act curtain number from a lesbian kiss and love ballad - something Steven Spielberg hardly dared to touch in his 1985 movie. And for all the obvious expense of this handsome production, Gary Griffin's direction and Donald Byrd's exuberantly lyrical choreography seldom feel hard-sell.
For much of the evening, director Griffin - a Sondheim specialist from Chicago making his impressive Broadway debut - locates the perilous balance between the vitality and oppression that drove Walker's haunting story about the male-dominated, post-slavery African-American culture. When a series of upbeat, unmotivated songs breaks the momentum in the last half, however, the pressures of the happy-face mentality make for palpable strain.
All the talent in the universe cannot make us see LaChanze as the girl everyone keeps calling ugly. But she is dynamite as Celie, whose 40-year crisis of faith takes her from passive 14-year-old backwoods girl - pregnant for the second time by the man she believes is her father - to a confident, loving woman who designs pants that look like something Katharine Hepburn could wear.
While Walker told Celie's journey through her letters to God, Marsha Norman's book smoothly moves us through the adventure's many chapters without skimping on the development of the multiple major supporting characters. The blues, gospel, swing, African and gutbucket work songs by pop veterans Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray are open, accessible songs that are simply structured but not simpleminded.
Byrd's choreography thrusts them through the splendid dancers with the earth-rooted, taffy-torsoed effectiveness of an early ballet by Alvin Ailey. For the first time in too long, Broadway has a real dancing chorus again.
This all happens on a gorgeous John Lee Beatty set of wooden slats, leafy woods and magnificent skies (lit by Brian MacDevitt). Paul Tazewell's costumes are as character-driven as they are flattering.
Felicia P. Fields is terrific as the self-sufficient Sofia, the role defined by Winfrey in the movie, whose showstopping "Hell No!" to abuse is as poignant as it is defiant. Renee Elise Goldsberry is lovely as Celie's beloved missionary sister. Kingsley Leggs does everything but lick our faces to make us change our mind about the terrible Mister, who abuses Celie for years but somehow is redeemed. Brandon Victor Dixon makes us see Mister's son as the good side of life as the new man who can love strong women.
Throughout, there is an endearing Greek chorus of church ladies to gossip on the misfortunes and mourn only when absolutely necessary. Comic relief is also supplied by Krisha Marcano as Squeak, an Olive Oyl of a girl who talks as fast as she charms.
And then there is Elisabeth Withers-Mendes as Shug Avely, the blues singer whom everyone loves and who frequently loves in return. When she enters, listen for the wha-wha trumpet. But Withers-Mendes and company refuse to sanitize this rebel woman, who can lounge naked in a bathtub with the same easygoing confidence as she slinks though the juke-joint blues in a bangled golden slip dress. How delightful - and admirable - that the omnisexual woman doesn't get punished in the end for her wicked, wondrous ways.
Two very different women are thrown together by circumstance and, against all odds, form a friendship that empowers both of them.
Sound like the basis of a Broadway hit? It is: Wicked has been playing to packed houses for more than two years.
But now it has a plucky little sister in The Color Purple (* * * out of four), which opened Thursday at the Broadway Theatre.
As anyone who saw the 1985 film based on the Alice Walker novel of the same name knows, the female bonding in Purple extends beyond a pair of buddies. There are, for starters, Celie and Nettie, adoring siblings torn apart when their father, after raping Celie, forces her to marry a man who abuses her.
But as much as this musical adaptation of Purple details Celie's long years of suffering and her yearning for a sister whose very survival she begins to doubt, it also celebrates the inspiring relationships and resources of faith and self-love she manages to cultivate.
If your blood-sugar level is starting to creep up, be forewarned: Purple can be sappy stuff. But it's the kind of sap that seems to come from a pure heart instead of a cynical desire to exploit audiences' emotions with a lot of sentimental bells and whistles.
This socially and spiritually conscious Purple lays claim to a varied tradition in musical theater, dating from shows such as Wicked and Caroline, or Change back to some of the classics of Jerome Kern and Rodgers and Hammerstein, who broke ground in dealing with issues such as domestic violence and racism.
That's not to say Purple is as complex or transcendent as, say, Carousel, or Caroline for that matter. Still, it's often moving and well-served by a cast that ably sings soul, jazz, gospel and blues.
LaChanze's Celie is a marvel, aging from an awkward 14 to 54 without letting us doubt a word or breath. Elisabeth Withers-Mendes and Felicia P. Fields also stand out as two sassy alpha females who befriend her, one becoming a sort of soul mate.
All three women figure into the final scene, which is about as surprising as cake after a birthday dinner. Still, if you leave the theater with dry eyes ... well, I guess you're not as much of a sucker for sap as I am.
The raw folk-lyricism, epistolary structure and hard-edged conviction of "The Color Purple" make Alice Walker's Pulitzer-winning novel a challenging proposition for translation to a populist entertainment medium. Neither Steven Spielberg's prettified, Amblin-ized 1985 movie nor this big, messy patchwork of a musical entirely do justice to the story of poor black women from the Deep South in the first half of the 20th century. But in both cases, the book's vibrant characters and soaring emotional arc remain uncrushed. While the show crudely reduces the sprawling feminist saga to cartoonish episodes, it can count on an audience willing to connect the dots.
Walker created an indelible world as evocative and affecting in its depiction of sorrow and injustice as it is of joy, self-discovery and the redemptive power of love. Anyone familiar with the story brings a deep prior connection to these characters and their troubled lives. If the warmth surging from the aud on the show's first press night was any indication, it will be a Rialto fixture for some time; the mighty promotional muscle of presenting producer Oprah Winfrey certainly won't hurt that cause.
As the Broadway landscape becomes increasingly populated by pre-existing properties retooled as musicals, it's interesting to clock the hum of recognition that comes with key songs or familiar comic moments. In "The Color Purple," it comes with the power speeches.
Dipping into both the book and Spielberg's film, writer Marsha Norman has shrewdly left chunks of movie dialogue almost intact. When Sofia -- a part first played by Winfrey when she was on the verge of becoming a one-woman conglomerate -- talks about having to fight all her life ("I love Harpo, God knows I do. But I'll kill him dead before I let him or anybody beat me."), or when meek Celie finally bites back at her husband ("You a low-down dirty dog is what's wrong. It's time for me to leave you and enter into Creation."), cheering can be heard through the audience.
It's a testament to Walker's compassionate, truthful writing that moments like these -- not to mention the genuinely inspirational emotional payoff of the show's closing scene -- register as vigorously as they do, despite the creative team's unsophisticated storytelling and Gary Griffin's by-the-numbers direction. Like the sugar-coated movie, this shapeless stage version is far more satisfying than it deserves to be.
A chief weakness is the failure to give Celie (LaChanze) decisive ownership of the story. Inevitably, her personal journey from enslavement to empowerment, from battered insignificance to proud self-worth, allows the character to blossom only toward the final curtain; it's not until the penultimate song, "I'm Here," that she gets to stake her claim on the center-stage position.
Celie's odyssey is not short on incident or harrowing detail: Raped at 14 by the man she believes is her father; her two children taken from her at birth; passed from one oppressive man to another; inured to drudgery and abuse; her sister, the only person she truly loves, torn from her life. But despite LaChanze's honest, giving performance, Celie is consistently the least intriguing figure onstage.
It's members of her extended family that bring the musical to life, first feisty Sofia (Felicia P. Fields), a woman of formidable will who refuses to be a slave to any man; and then earthy Shug Avery (Elisabeth Withers-Mendes), the brassy honky-tonk singer who provides Celie with her first experience of romantic love and sexual fulfillment.
In addition to supplying the most vivid perfs, they also score some of the musical's most engaging numbers -- Fields in the fired-up refusal to be subjugated "Hell No!" and the frisky duet (with Brandon Victor Dixon) "Any Little Thing," Withers-Mendes in the pulsating hymn to raunchy good times, "Push Da Button."
In an honorable but ultimately laborious attempt to harness all of Walker's themes, Norman's book plods through the various chapters, shuffling far too many characters and refusing to make the kind of streamlining choices that could have given the overlong show clarity, nuance and immediacy. Celie's initially brutal, later remorseful husband, Mister (Kingsley Leggs); her weak but essentially good-natured stepson Harpo (Dixon); her loving sister, Nettie (Renee Elise Goldsberry); and Harpo's plucky girlfriend Squeak (Krisha Marcano) all have illuminating moments. But nobody really sticks around long enough to become a fleshed-out character or knits together well enough to establish the sense of community so central to the book and even the movie.
Like the film, the interlude in Africa, tracking Nettie's years as a missionary with Celie's children, feels like a separate narrative grafted onto the action, rather than an integrated part of the flow. (Poetic flow, in general, is a quality sorely absent in this lumpy retelling; as a linking device, the Greek chorus of gossiping church ladies doesn't work.)
There's a distinct visual shift from John Lee Beatty's robust, rustic design of weather-beaten wood and gnarled trees to a more stylized African motif and some muscular balletic work from the ensemble -- the standout contribution from otherwise underused choreographer Donald Byrd. But the lack of cohesion might make some auds feel they've wandered back from intermission into "The Lion King" by mistake.
The show's design work generally is striking; while Brian MacDevitt's lighting takes its cue too eagerly from Spielberg with an excess of florid, rainbow-hued skyscapes, the stage pictures often are bold and impressive.
Written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, three experienced songsmiths new to musical theater, the score is an agreeable stew of gospel, R&B, blues, jazz and soulful pop that sounds like '80s-era Dionne Warwick. Like everything else in the show, the musical elements are a far-from-seamless mix, alternating flat stretches with stirring peaks, and too many songs feel incomplete.
But when the cast gathers onstage for the title number's uplifting final reprise, the mainstream auds to whom this show is pitched will go out on a feel-good high, elevated by Walker's affirmation of the resilience of the human spirit.