As the curtain rose on The Color Purple's long-awaited Miami run, a young woman on stage suffered labor pains as a joyous church congregation sang of the glories of the Lord. Then the gossiping church ladies and bombastic preacher disappeared as Celie, the play's protagonist surrendered her newborn son to her rapist father.
These opening scenes were the production's attempt to balance the weight of Celie's struggle as a poor black girl in rural Georgia with the celebration and humor audiences expect from musicals. At the Arsht until November 1, the production generally succeeds despite flawed performances and pacing. The vocals and music, based on the Alice Walker's 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name and produced by Oprah Winfrey, were excellent, with performers belting out their joy and sorrow in a way that felt right for the characters.
Kenita R. Miller is shouldered with playing Celie and showing her transformation from a meek, abused housewife into an independent woman. Miller conveys the pathos and pride of the character well with her facial expressions and voice, but her movements were noticeably stilted. This lessened some of the emotional impact of the character and made her portrayal feel less authentic at times.
La Toya London is given less to do as Celie's sister Nettie, and her performance sometimes falls flat, especially in the play's first half. However, London, a contender in the third season of American Idol, certainly made up for her average line-delivery with a range of amazing vocals. The flaws likely wouldn't have been so noticeable if the other members of the supporting cast weren't so natural and superb. Rufus Bonds Jr., who plays Mister, effortlessly vacillates between comic villainy and genuine menace with good effect. And Tony-nominated Felicia P. Fields who as Sofia, Celie's confidant and stepdaughter, gives the best performance of the night, belting out "Hell, No" -- one of the show's absolute highlights.
The story spans 40 years of the mid 1900s. The many themes and storylines draw the musical out, making the nearly three-hour production feel longer than it should be. Though the show is certainly enjoyable and well-produced, the length and spots of seemingly misplaced humor can be distracting. Fans of the novel that inspired it may yearn for some of the darkness and emotion of the original, which overflowed with those elements. But if you can appreciate the show on its own merits, you're up for a grand time at the theater with this award-winning story.
The Color Purple is at the Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House in the Arsht Center until November 1. It plays 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, visit arshtcenter.org.
-- Alex Tiegen