Exactly 10 years ago, just as “The Color Purple” was opening on Broadway, a little-known Scottish director named John Doyle made his own Broadway debut with a radically reconceived revival of “Sweeney Todd.”
Now Doyle is applying his signature style of stripped-down production values and a sobering mood to “The Color Purple.”
Featuring an exceptional all-black cast led by Jennifer Hudson (in her Broadway debut), Danielle Brooks (“Orange Is the New Black”) and English actress Cynthia Erivo, this marks one of the rare occasions where a musical’s revival manages to outshine the original production.
Based on the 1982 Alice Walker novel, which was adapted into the Steven Spielberg film with Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, “The Color Purple” is an expansive, gritty but emotional musical dealing with all kinds of abuse. Its distinctive score blends rhythm and blues, pop, gospel and jazz.
Spanning 40 years in the American South, it observes Celie (Erivo), a poor black woman who is mistreated by her father and then her cruel husband (Isaiah Johnson), but finally gains the courage to start a new life thanks to the influence of the brassy, strong-willed Sofia (Brooks) and openly sexual, unpredictable Shug Avery (Hudson).
At first, Doyle’s production comes off as overly mannered and limited in movement. But on the whole, it is far more dramatically charged and focused than the elaborate but undistinguished original production. This feels less like a revival than a revitalization, or a new musical altogether.
Erivo credibly conveys Celie’s 180-degree transformation in personality. The big-voiced Brooks burns with ferocity while slipping into moments of good humor. Hudson is fully authoritative and altogether fantastic in the diva role. Johnson has both a crisp edge and the air of a broken man.
If you go: “The Color Purple” has an open run at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. 242 W. 45th St., ColorPurple.com.