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Coloring inside the lines

by Jim Gladstone

Carla R. Stewart (Shug Avery) and Adrianna Hicks (Celie) in the North American tour cast of "The Color Purple." Photo: Matthew Murphy
Carla R. Stewart (Shug Avery) and Adrianna Hicks (Celie) in the North American tour cast of "The Color Purple." Photo: Matthew Murphy  

"The Color Purple," a musical hybrid of Alice Walker's acclaimed epistolary novel and Steven Spielberg's movie version, is virtually sung-through. That means, of course, that there is scant dialogue, and the lyrics need to carry the plot. Alas, in this case, sung-through also provides a shorthand summary of the evening's merits: Other than the cast's superb gospel-tinged vocalizing, we're pretty much through.

In the best of the sung-through breed - "Falsettos" and "Rent" are notable examples - lyrics not only reveal characters' psychological depth, they also unspool narrative details that push the story forward. In director John Doyle's inexplicably Tony-winning 2016 revival now playing at the Orpheum, the music tends to stop dead in its tracks when the story needs to move along. Then a brief, overstuffed telephone call or letter-reading is shoehorned into the proceedings to tick off some critical story points.

A fateful death, a joyful discovery, a painful public humiliation and an armed invasion - stuff that could make for great staged drama - are among the major plot turns delivered through hasty exposition rather than song and action. It feels less like the adaptation of a novel than a music-infused Cliff's Notes.

The anguish-laden life story of Celie, who slowly grows from a compliant, abused child into a confident, independent woman, assured in her skills at business and her bonds with a community of women, deserves a far deeper treatment than the hurried skim it gets here. As played by Adrianna Hicks, who sings with a rich plangency but is constantly undermined by clunky dialogue, Celie sometimes feels uncomfortably like Georgina, the zombified housekeeper in "Get Out."

Some of the show's problems stem from the fact that none of the three collaborating composer-lyricists have significant theater experience. Among them, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray have written hit singles including "If Only for One Night," "Boogie Wonderland," and "Into the Groove." Solid pop songs all, but built for the ear-catching needs of radio, not the storytelling requisites of the stage.

There are occasional moments when the trio succeeds in setting a mood: The limpid ballad "Too Beautiful for Words" movingly illustrates Celie's nascent sense of self-respect. The jazzy juke-joint pastiche "Push the Button" sizzles with the pansexual electricity that defines Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart, consistently compelling). It's a number that may also go down as Broadway's first and only song-and-dance tribute to the clitoris.

The songwriters also do well enough with character introductions like "Big Dog," which effectively sketches the domineering, ill-tempered nature of Mister (powerful baritone Gavin Gregory), and "Brown Betty," the rollicking ushering in of frilly, frivolous Squeak (Betty Boopishly delightful Erica Durham). But these are single-minded songs, without much in the way of lyrical complexity. Ironically, Squeak turns out to be such a minor character one wonders why she merited musical fanfare at all. For the most part, when it comes to advancing the story, they're inert.

Instead, Marsha Norman, credited as book writer, is left to caulk the narrative gaps between songs with sudden spurts of exposition. It's a long fall from her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1983 play "'night Mother," which demonstrated her deft hand and deep empathy in rendering palpable female relationships. "The Color Purple" crowds her out with too many songs that cover too little ground.

Played before an unmoving wooden wall hung with simple chairs (designed by director Doyle), "Color Purple" finds the minimalist style that has served Doyle well in productions of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" and "Company" backfiring on him. Absent the lyrical ingenuity and story structure that can keep a Sondheim show moving on a bare stage, Doyle's simple set for "Color Purple" combines with static songs and attenuated book to yield an evening that feels less like a shapely piece of theater than a beautifully sung concert loosely inspired by a familiar story.

"The Color Purple" plays the SHN Orpheum Theater through May 27.

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