“The Color Purple” at The Papermill Playhouse in Radburn, NJ opened Sunday night and unfortunately it was nothing like the movie. Poor direction made this musical both uncertain and confusing. The first act, like the second opened with all the cast on the stage. “Huckleberry Pie” was performed well by the only two outstanding characters of the evening. We barely know why Celie has to give up her baby, the second one she had to give up. “Mysterious Ways”, the shows second song sung by the Company is uninspirational. “Somebody Gonna Love You” sung by Celie (Adrianna Hicks) was heartfelt but not moving. The play starts out at a quick pace but falls flat with songs like “Big Dog”. In the first half of the first act we are trying to figure out what the musical is about. We want to be on top of this story, however, the plot runs away from us. Mister, the black plantation owner is equally difficult to figure out. He is supposed to be ruthless but we do not fear him. He is far to petty to fear. He hides his wifes mail and calls her ugly. We never see his true rage or meanness. The audience does not feel what his slaves feel, what his son, Harpo feels, nor his former girlfriend Shug. We know his father prohibited him marrying her, but we never see the meanness in his dad as well. We see some inhuman behavior but it is not resonant to the audience, not to a sophisticated one, anyway. The second half of the first act has some memorable songs, “Too Beautiful for Words”, “Push da Button” and “What About Love”. It still lacks a solid story to match the good songs.
Act two has less songs and a little better story. We see the human side of these characters. “I’m Here” and “The Color Purple” are two of the best all evening. Many of the songs sung, particularly by the company, whether by themselves or with the cast were uninspired and uninspiring. As if they did not want to strain their voices they were flat as if they were just going through the motions. The plot gives us a little more insight into the lives of the people who all seem like millionaires who have nothing better to do then hang out and pass the time. We do not ever feel the pain and suffering of the slaves on the plantation. We never see the pain that Shug has been through. We first meet her drunk. We are told about her drug problem and her lust for young men. In the next short part she is as happy as can be, not a care in the world. We see Harpo, Mister’s son. Mister tries to bully him but we see no real evidence of any bad effects on him. He loves his wife, Mister tells him to be a man and don’t let her dictate to you. She leaves him, yet the results are not horrible to Harpo, rather it becomes more comical when it should have bore pain.
In spite of the bad direction, the costumes and the lighting were good. Ann Hould Ward did a great job in the designs from the plantation to the Sunday best. The colorful outfits in the second act made the musical fun to watch at that point. Jane Cox in her lighting added the sultry to some of the musical numbers. She was able create a bluesy atmosphere to the performance with the cool whites, blues and reds hitting the singers.
The two standouts, Camara and Hicks (Nettie and Celie respectively) had great energy together, good comedic timing and a genuine closeness as sisters. Both had good voices and were also able to act their parts well.This show could have been really good. The direction,however, did not allow for the Musical to find it’s footing.