If you want to be inspired, entertained, and whipsawed from the depths of despair to the heights of exhilaration — not once, but repeatedly — all in one evening and all in one place, you need to see The Color Purple, playing at the Durham Performing Arts Center May 12th through the 17th. Based upon the novel written by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment film, the musical comes to life onstage in a book by Marsha Norman, and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray.

A heartbreaking and heartwarming saga of human triumph in the face of almost insurmountable adversity, The Color Purple glows with intensity as it touches on all the core elements of human experience:  survival, despair, hope, loss, fear, love, hatred, injustice, faith, joy, and comedy — yes, even plenty of comedy. The opening night performance cast such a powerful spell, the empathy swirling through DPAC’s cavernous space was visceral. 

The Color Purple encompasses a world of big characters and themes, but it is primarily Celie’s story. Celie is the ultimate everywoman, a character so intrinsically beautiful (no, she is not ugly, not even for a moment, and Tuesday’s audience audibly recoiled each time that word was used against her) and so achingly lovable that she captures our hearts instantly and never lets them go. Act One’s “Too Beautiful for Words” is a fitting ode to Celie that leaves precious few dry eyes in the house. I dare you not to root for Celie from the core of your being.    

Set in rural Georgia between 1909 and 1949, The Color Purple pulls no punches as it drops the audience straight into the harsh realities of Celie’s life. Instantly, we feel privileged to know Celie. We watch in fascination as she grows from a terrified, abused 14-year-old into a confident, wise, successful, and happily liberated woman. Having lived through every form of pain imaginable, including rape and horrific abuse at the hands of her stepfather and husband, Celie is ultimately saved by the redemptive power of love — the love of her sister, Nettie, from whom she is cruelly separated for decades, the love of Shug Avery, a most delightful breath of fresh air in Celie’s difficult life, and perhaps most important of all, the great love she finds within herself. 

For those familiar with the novel and the movie, it may be difficult to imagine The Color Purple as a musical. But have no fear: the music only adds incredible depth and energy to this tale. From the first number to the last, the score is a swirl of toe-tapping music that grabs and commands attention. The Color Purple actually borders on the operatic, with considerably more music and less spoken dialogue than this reviewer expected. The orchestra, with its music director, Sheilah Walker, is outstanding, infusing the score with precision and passion. How to describe the singing and dancing and acting? Unbelievably awesome. Stunning and amazing, too. The role of Celie, played on opening night by standby/understudy Phyre Hawkins, is extremely demanding, requiring, among other things, believable aging from 14 to 54 (no small feat!). Ms. Hawkins had us in the palm of her hand from beginning to end, her powerful presence on stage a fitting centerpiece for the show. She was 14 and she was also 54. Astonishingly, this required no stretch of our imaginations.  In fact, the secret of The Color Purple’s success hinges largely on the fact that every single role is cast to perfection here, not a weak link anywhere in the chain. Angela Robinson, as Shug Avery, could make anyone fall in love with her. Ms. Robinson’s magnetic presence, exuding an unbridled, raw sexuality; her genuine heart, and her amazing singing prove an irresistible combination, particularly in Act One ’s juke joint showstopper, “Push Da Button.”

Felicia P. Fields, as Sofia, nearly steals the show in every single one of her scenes. Her larger than life character, her amazingly resonant speaking and singing voice (what depth and range!), and most of all her unwavering defiance of the social norms of her time, make her the perfect feminist for our time as well. One simply can’t help loving Sofia. The Church Ladies, like church ladies everywhere, are incorrigible gossips, but can these ladies ever sing! As quasi-narrators, their carping is central to the flow, and their hilarious commentaries keep us begging for more. Brandon Victor Dixon as Harpo, Rufus Bonds, Jr., as Mister, LaToya London as Nettie, & Tiffany Daniels as Squeak are simply outstanding throughout.

Act II opens with the beautiful “African Homeland” sequence, a perfect storm of dancing, staging, costuming, design, and story coherence. Everything is creatively woven together here in the ultimate dream/reality number. Mister’s rendition of “Celie’s Curse” is a wrenching display of human anguish; though Mister is the epitome of cruelty and depravity through most of the show, one cannot help but feel his pain here.  

Scenic design by John Lee Beatty, costume design by Paul Tazewell, and lighting design by Brian MacDevitt deserve special mention.  It all works together flawlessly to evoke the feel of rural Georgia and — in the opening of Act II — of Africa.
The Color Purple is a must-see gem — don’t miss it! See our theatre calendar or details.