Monday, December 28, 2015

Theater Reviews—Broadway Musical “The Color Purple”; Off-Broadway Play “Steve”

The Color Purple
Music & lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis & Stephen Bray; book by Marsha Norman
Directed by John Doyle
Opened December 10, 2015
Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Written by Mark Gerrard; Directed by Cynthia Nixon
Closes January 3, 2016
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

The cast of The Color Purple (photo by Matthew Murphy)

There didn't seem to be any compelling reason to revive the musical The Color Purple—especially in John Doyle's typically sterile staging—at least until British actress Cynthia Erivo, as Celie, the downtrodden but resourceful heroine of Alice Walker's tough but poetic novel and Steven Spielberg's more sentimental movie adaptation, holds forth for her 11 o'clock number, “I’m Here.”

Erivo—who gives a poignant portrayal of a woman who has been impregnated by her father, had her babies taken away from her, has been beaten and dehumanized by her abusive husband Mister and has had her beloved sister Nettie banned from ever seeing her again—slowly builds Celie's declaration of independence until she belts out the liberating words the audience has wanted to hear for more than two hours. Erivo delivers the goods, bringing the dramatically bumpy show to a rousing, and cathartic, climax.

Thanks mainly to Erivo, The Color Purple works as well onstage as onscreen. Although Marsha Norman's book adroitly streamlines events in Walker's novel—primarily written in Celie’s voice as letters to God, obviously tough to recreate in the film or in the theater—the story as shown never entirely escapes its soap opera-ish leanings. The songs of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray skillfully range across a variety of genres, from gospel to blues to jazz to romantic balladry, with occasional moments of heartfelt power. 

Director John Doyle came to prominence through gimmicky Sondheim revivals with performers playing their own instruments onstage; shrewdly, he then changed to productions set against foreboding, often massive backdrops, from the ugly wall overwhelming his disastrous Metropolitan Opera Peter Grimes to the grey, decaying city of Broadway’s The Visit last spring. For Purple, Doyle has designed an imposing wall made of wooden planks, with several chairs jutting out from it at different heights. Other chairs are the only furniture available for the characters to sit on; what this has to do with Celie’s drama is anyone's guess: and, although it quickly gets tiresome, for a few moments the set does have a pleasing look.

In an accomplished cast—of the men, Kyle Scatliffe stands out as a sympathetic Harpo, Mister's grown son—the spectacular voices make the music and drama soar. As Harpo's wife Sofia (Oprah Winfrey’s role in the movie), Danielle Brooks is over the top but never gratuitously so, with a powerhouse voice to match; as famed singer Shug Avery, who bewitches Mister and Celie and everyone in between, Jennifer Hudson shows off her amazingly controlled vocals, even if her ability to act like a sex symbol leaves something to be desired. And, as mentioned before, Erivo is a flat-out unstoppable Celie, equaling LaChanze and Fantasia’s turns in the initial Broadway production.

The cast of Steve (photo by Monique Carboni)

Steve—Mark Gerrard's comedy and the second play this fall to track gay fathers through the minefields of contemporary Manhattan (after the wiser and less wisecracking Dada Woof Papa Hot)—is simply too clever for its own good.

The main couple, Stephen and Steven, have a young kleptomaniac son, whose theft of Stephen's cell phone allows Steven to discover that Stephen has been sexting with one of their closest friends, Brian, long-time lover of another close friend, Matt; this causes Steven to have a dalliance with a younger, gorgeous dancer/waiter Esteban. In addition, the main quartet's lesbian BFF, the endlessly snarky Carrie, is dying of cancer. All of this allows Gerrard the chance to display gallows humor, which at times is funny but is mostly gratuitous. And the play must also set some kind of record for how many inside theater jokes and insults can be flung in 90 minutes. Again, some of these sting amusingly while others simply wither and die.

As schizophrenic as Gerrard's script is (there are actually four characters named some variation of Steve, including an unseen—but hot—trainer at the local gym with whom Brian and Matt end up cohabitating), director Cynthia Nixon shows a remarkable ability to orchestrate the madness into a semblance of coherence; when she can't, there are bouncy theater tunes that the cast performs with aplomb, even at the curtain call. Nixon’s harmonious cast—Matt McGrath (Steven), Malcolm Gets (Stephen), Mario Cantone (Matt), Jerry Dixon (Brian), Ashley Atkinson (Carrie)—goes above and beyond to make Steve broadly entertaining, if rarely insightful

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