The characters – Celie, Nettie, Sofia, Shug Avery and even mean old Mister – were all there. So was author Alice Walker, who received a plaque from Gavin Newsom’s office declaring it “Alice Walker Day” in San Francisco. “The Color Purple” made its long-awaited arrival in the city Friday night, and it was a triumph for all concerned.
If the exuberant opening night performance at the Orpheum Theatre felt like a homecoming, no one should have been surprised. Walker, who lives in the Bay Area, wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel here in 1982. Adapted for the screen in 1985, it became an Oprah Winfrey-produced musical in 2005; after successful runs on Broadway and in Chicago, the story has come full circle to where it began.
This version does Walker proud. Directed by Gary Griffin, with a book by Marsha Norman and a blues-pop-gospel score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, the tale of Celie – a black woman whose triumph over adversity emerged as one of the great feminist stories in 20th century literature – comes to life in vibrant, uplifting theatrical terms.
It’s a remarkable feat, considering the sad truths – child abuse, domestic violence and racial injustice – portrayed in the novel. Celie, who at age 14 has already borne two children to a man she thinks is her father, is separated from her beloved sister Nettie and sold into an abusive marriage with Mister. It’s left to strong women like Sofia, the wife of Mister’s son, and Shug, the blues singer who is Mister’s sometime paramour, to help Celie to a dawning awareness of her own inner strength.
Griffin’s staging is effective. The wide open skies of Brian MacDevitt’s lighting designs frame John Lee Beatty’s sets of rustic woods and mossy scrims to suggest the rural South; costumes by Paul Tazewell span four decades in the first half of the 20th century, and Donald Byrd’s choreography moves the action from Georgia to Africa and back again.
But it’s the cast that elevates the production. Jeannette Bayardelle, a veteran of the Broadway cast, is terrific as Celie – shy and vulnerable in her early scenes, dignified as an older woman, she makes the character sympathetic throughout. Bayardelle uses her big voice to thrilling effect, and her smile – which comes on like a high beam in an Act 1 love scene – is irresistible.
When she finally declares her independence in Act 2, it’s a heart-stopping moment.
La Toya London is a sweet-voiced Nettie, and Felicia P. Fields is an indelible Sofia (the role played by Winfrey in the film.) Michelle Williams (of Destiny’s Child) is a creamy-voiced Shug. Stephanie St. James’ Squeak, Stu James’ Harpo, and Rufus Bonds Jr.’s Mister make solid contributions; Kimberly Ann Harris, Virginia Ann Woodruff and Lynette Dupree are a wonderfully comic Greek chorus of gossiping townswomen.
If the musical smoothes out some of the novel’s rough edges – it’s hard to believe now that Walker was roundly criticized in the ’80s for her portrayal of black men – the message of spiritual transcendence still feels real. Even the worst characters in “The Color Purple” come out fine, but so does the audience. This is one of those rare theatrical evenings: a feel-good musical that actually makes you feel good.
IF YOU GO
The Color Purple
Presented by Best of Broadway
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays; closes Dec. 9
Tickets: $35 to $99
Contact: (415) 512-7770 or www.shnsf.com