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STAGE REVIEW

A strong and spirited "Color Purple''

'The Color Purple' (Paul Kolnik) From left: Kenita R. Miller as Celie, Felicia P. Fields as Sofia, and Lesly Terrell Donald as Buster in "The Color Purple."
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / June 19, 2009
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Like the Alice Walker novel on which it is based, the musical version of “The Color Purple’’ is at once epic and personal - packed to bursting with incident and character, spanning 40 years, yet seen through the eyes of one downtrodden woman who only finds her own power late in the day. Also like the novel, it can seem exhaustingly meandering, but it also has an essential goodness at its core.

These inherited traits are at once the strength and the weakness of the musical, whose book writer, Marsha Norman, has stayed closer to the novel than did Steven Spielberg’s movie version. And the musical, now at the Citi Wang Theatre, has something that neither book nor movie did: It has a rich variety of songs, written by the new-to-theater team of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, that combine a whole range of idioms into a lively and often uplifting new form.

But the plot? Oh, the plot. It twists and turns forever, with new characters popping in and out to varying effect, but at its center is Celie - quiet, submissive, miserable Celie, as she is when we first meet her and for some time to come. At the start she’s 14, pregnant with her second child (by the man she calls Pa) and asking God to send a sign of what’s happening to her.

Pa takes the children away, then sends Celie off, too, marrying her to the cruelly abusive Mister (who would have preferred her prettier sister, Nettie). Nettie comes to visit and rejects Mister’s advances; he bans all contact between the sisters, setting off the central longing that will drive Celie through the rest of the story.

Meanwhile, though, she keeps encountering strong and spirited women - somewhat schematically provided by Walker, but made vivid, funny, and more human on stage. The musical also adds a chorus of clucking, gossipy church ladies who give a kind of matriarchal context to the other women, notably the big and sassy Sofia, who marries Mister’s son Harpo, and the seductive Shug Avery, Mister’s longtime mistress and the first person since Nettie whom Celie truly loves.

All these people dance into, out of, and through each other’s lives, with Donald Byrd’s choreography providing plenty of stylish and idiosyncratic moves for each one. Along with Paul Tazewell’s period-sensitive and delicious costumes (except for poor Celie, stuck in a shift) and the musical borrowings from gospel, boogie-woogie, scat, and African rhythms, the dancing keeps us engaged with the characters and their movement through time even when the plot threatens to spin once too many times around.

There are a few truly loopy moments, though, notably when the second act begins with a kind of African daydream: Celie, still in that shift, dances along with a chorus of grass-skirted women and fearsome warriors, while the church ladies morph into blue-robed queens. It’s visually striking but conceptually strained, and it lasts so long that it pulls the act out of shape in ways it can’t quite recover from.

Still, it’s an unqualified pleasure to see a huge Broadway production about strong black women - a pleasure that the opening-night audience, with many more black faces than in a typical downtown show but with many white ones as well, seemed to revel in. Reaching out to underserved audiences isn’t the only mission of theater - but it is an important one, and one that “The Color Purple’’ fulfills with honor and joy.

The touring cast, too, is wonderfully strong; it features three women from the Broadway cast. Kenita R. Miller personifies Celie’s silent suffering and ultimate liberation with a stolidity that grows increasingly energized as the night goes on; by the end, she’s almost glowing with Celie’s newfound strength and happiness. Felicia P. Fields is a thundering, earthy delight as the substantial Sofia, especially in her saucy duet with Harpo, “Any Little Thing,’’ and in her earlier manifesto, “Hell No!’’ Angela Robinson brings both sultry elegance and spiritual strength to Shug Avery, particularly in her tender song with Celie, “What About Love?’’

The men are given less nuance to work with, but Rufus Bonds Jr. makes Mister’s cruelty and his ultimate redemption believable. Brandon Victor Dixon’s Harpo is lithe and amusing, and the contrast between his beanpole frame and the mountain that is Sofia is one that both use to superb comedic effect.

“The Color Purple’’ could be tighter; it could be sharper; it could be more cohesive. But it couldn’t be more full of heart and spirit. And, at its best moments, that feels like more than enough.

THE COLOR PURPLE Musical based on the novel by Alice Walker

Book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray

Directed by: Gary Griffin. Choreography, Donald Byrd. Sets, John Lee Beatty. Costumes, Paul Tazewell. Lights, Brian MacDevitt. Sound, Jon Weston.

At: Citi Wang Theatre, through June 28. Tickets, $28-100, 866-348-9738, www.citicenter.org

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