By Rich Lopez Staff Writer

With abundant energy, ‘The Color Purple’ satisfies in its storytelling

SING OUT SISTER | Kenita Miller belts out beautifully as Celie.

It would be a mistake to confuse The Color Purple movie for the musical. Expectations of heavy drama and pathos from the film should be discarded when contemplating seeing the stage version. Instead, this Purple shines in its simplicity of tale-telling punctuated by a consistent balance of humor and drama.

We’re introduced to the main character, Celie, as a 14 year-old pregnant with her father’s baby and best friends with her sister Nettie. Celie’s life unfolds quickly with a forced marriage to the hateful Mister and a profound encounter with Miss Shug Avery who brings a different kind of affection out of her. However, it’s this same unfolding that keeps the show from being anything more than satisfying.

 As Celie’s story is told, mostly through song, the pacing is just fast enough to keep the viewer from developing affection for the character. It’s this same canter that also interferes with a clear timeline. While the audience is trying to find an emotional link to the characters, babies are born and characters have aged without the audience even realizing.

All you have to do is accept this and roll with the flow. If you can do that, Purple is a delight.

The music ranges from Southern gospel to African, with the usual musical theater ballads and narrative tunes peppered in.  Through the music, each character arcs into something much better than where they began, and the cast melds well with each other.

Angela Robinson as Shug Avery, the dazzling woman and juke joint singer every other female is either jealous or disdainful of, delivers a weighty portrayal of a character who is mostly shallow. But Robinson struts with a certain egotistical majesty, bringing Avery to life as a woman taking on diva status as best she can. Robinson is magnetic enough to keep all eyes on her, yet tender enough to affect Celie’s heart.

Unfortunately, the play glosses over the lesbian relationship that was without doubt in the book. Slight kisses brought some gasps, but what should have been longing liplocks were demoted to handholding and kisses on the forehead.

Felicia Fields brings comic relief as Sofia, the headstrong, full-figured woman who won’t take anybody’s crap. But she’s much more than a foil. The character could have easily been a ham, but Fields doles out the brashness with charm and grounds Sofia into a believable character.

The Color Purple is a story about women and it shows. Despite strong performances by Stu James as Harpo and Rufus Bonds Jr. as Mister, their stories nearly fall by the wayside. Clearly, we’re here for Celie.

Kenita Miller holds the show together as the main character. Her voice is pristine as she belts out long vocal runs that garner applause before she’s done. Her eyes can register the naiveté of a youth mistaking abuse for love and the battered but optimistic soul of an older woman. Miller is a tiny woman though, and sometimes that keeps her from actually carrying the play as everyone else towers above her.

But Miller resonates with the resilience and hope her character needs.

In the end, The Color Purple is a story told well. The fast pacing may prevent the audience from emotional investment but that doesn’t keep it from being a good musical. We can care enough about the characters thanks to the actors’ committed performances, but we’ll always know it’s a show.

Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 First Ave. Through Sunday. $25–$80.
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