Those of us attending the recent Troika-managed touring production of the musical “The Color Purple” probably already knew the show’s story. After all, Alice Walker’s celebrated novel has been around since 1982. And there was a movie version, in 1985, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.
Partly because the story involved violence (often by men directed at women) and partly because of its allusion to lesbian sexuality, “Purple” was occasionally censored. That made it even more famous, of course.
So the crowd at the McCain Auditorium series showing Wednesday already knew something about the entertainment. Then, it turned out that the story wasn’t the interesting feature of the musical. The music was.
The 2005 show has songs written by the team of Brenda Russell, Madonna drummer Stephen Bray and the late Allee Willis, who wrote the theme song for the TV sitcom “Friends” and “What Have I Done to Deserve This” for the Pet Shop Boys and the legendary Dusty Springfield.
There are little bits of Willis’ sort of catchy pop in the show’s 18 songs. But their arrangements cut them up, Sondheim-like, so that none of them ever seems like a Top 40 hit.
Instead they begin with gospel, blues and even swing passages and then go off in more or less asymmetrical developments. This was the spirit of the musical age in 2005. But there’s another reason the songs aren’t allowed to become “I’ll Be There For You.”
The show uses relatively little dialog. It can go along for 10 minutes without a spoken line in it. This means the songs have to speak for the characters. And the history of musical theater shows that when songs are asked to replace dialog, the music sometimes gets less tuneful.
Luckily for those of us in McCain, the music was presented by a good singing on-stage cast of 19. The choral passages — and there were many of them — were especially effective when sung by Mariah Lyttle (the production’s Celie) and the rest of the big-voiced performers.
The music must have been first in the minds of the show’s producers because they put a 10-piece band in the pit — a band almost twice the size of the ones we usually get for touring shows. And the orchestra played well. But what we heard were the voices — the instrumental music was held back.
In fact, one had to look at the program a couple of times to assure oneself that there was in fact a drummer in the band. So how can they do gospel, blues and swing without much more obvious support from the orchestra’s rhythm section?
Well, a surprising portion of the music was sentimental, slow in tempo and emphasizing tune at the expense of rhythm. I have trouble with the notion of — to give the extreme example in this musical — the Happy Ending Ballad. But again, this is the spirit of the age. We seem to want songs to make us feel strongly, and composers seem to find more emotional effectiveness in sad, sad music.
The play’s action is set mostly in rural Georgia in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Celie and her sister Nettie have a miserable, squalid home life with an abusive father who has already impregnated Celie twice. Pa has sent the babies away. Celie is married off to the even more evil Mister (Andrew Malone).
When he tries to rape Nettie, she is sent off to be educated. The story follows Celie and a series of model female characters — notably spirited Sophia (Chedra Arielle) and seductive Shug (Sandie Lee). Shug befriends Celie, but leaves her to return to Memphis.
After Sophia is beaten until she loses her attitude, Celie becomes independent. Will she be happy? Will she see her children again? Is Nettie, who went off to Africa as a missionary, still alive?
The musical version of the story makes references to the novel’s reliance on letters. The set was a serviceable four-layer stage backed by a three-panel wall of distressed planking on which chairs were hung. The lighting and costumes were pleasing but not distracting.
So our attention was free for us to follow along the familiar story while listening to some fine voices work over “The Color Purple: The Musical’s” slightly angular songs.