A strong audience turnout and a solid production with stellar vocals combined to make Tuesday’s opening night of “The Color Purple” an impressive theater experience. I walked away with the requisite lump in my throat as the often aching themes in Alice Walker’s acclaimed storyline came together in a surge of emotional redemption.
Touring shows can vary in terms of the quality of performers and production values, as subscribers to the Broadway in Fresno series know all too well. This “Color Purple” is stronger than last month’s “Beauty and the Beast.” I saw the original “Color Purple” on Broadway, and while the sets are smaller, the orchestra much thinner and the lighting execution a little less accomplished, especially the Saroyan follow-spot operator at last night’s show, I was impressed with the fidelity to the New York production. (The show repeats 7:30 p.m. today.)
Dayna Dantzler’s vocals soared as Celie, the brutalized central character whose story of abuse and perseverance propels the show. Taunted through the show as being ugly, her character’s most rousing song, “I’m Here,” hit exactly the right notes on opening night as she emphatically declared her beauty — much to the delight of the audience. Edward C. Smith gives a rousing turn as the malevolent Mister, whose eventual transformation is as important as Celie’s. Taprena Augustine’s Shug Avery, the glamorous singer who awakens Celie’s sensuality, is strong. And Pam Trotter, in the crowd-pleasing role of Sophie, balanced her character’s sassiness with the gravity that gives it so much depth.
I wish the passage of time in the production could have been better handled in this production — particularly in the first act, when many years sweep by in just a few minutes — and more care taken to at least have the actors better approximate their characters’ ages. (The character of Harper, in particular, seems way too old in parts of the first act and young in parts of the second.) One other quibble, this one with Dantzler’s acting: Her reaction to Shug’s kiss was far too broad — almost cheesy. She needs to rely more on her total body language and less on her facial expressions to convey a sense of surprise or humor.
One more caveat: It’s a long show (nearly two and a half hours with intermission) and probably wouldn’t be the first choice for fans of light-hearted Broadway fare who have no interest in more troubled themes. But for those willing for a rousing emotional experience, purple is the color of the day.