IF YOU GO
What: Musical based on Alice Walker's novel of a black woman's life in 1930s Georgia
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday; 2 p.m. Saturday & Sunday
Where: 5833 Pelican Bay Boulevard, Naples
Information: 800-597-1900 or thephil.org
Something Else: Park near the Wachovia Bank on Pelican Bay Boulevard for a quick exit, as Phil traffic is notoriously difficult.
The second number of "The Color Purple" is a bring-down-the-house, clapping, foot-stomping showstopper. Soloist Yolanda Wyns blasts out the melodious sounds of the gospel-tinged "Mysterious Ways" and brings forth spontaneous applause from the usually somnolent Philharmonic crowd. No problem there. Except that the third, seventh, ninth, tenth and twelve numbers are emotional powerhouses as well. And that's just the first act.
The entertainment value of "The Color Purple," the splashy Broadway tour at the Philharmonic through Sunday, is beyond question. There's a top-notch cast, including hilariously funny Tony Award nominee Felicia Fields (Sofia), "American Idol" alumna LaToya London (Nettie) and a host of performers from the show's Broadway run. Chief among these is Kenita R. Miller in the lead role of Celie. Miller might be tiny but there's an enormous voice lurking inside her. She opens her mouth to sing, flashes that thousand-watt smile and commands the audience to hear her, feel her, experience her.
Unequivocally, the night's best feature is the sonic tour through the musical heritage of the American South. Gospel gets a soul-stirring treatment at the top of the night, with ragtime, soul, blues, funk and even African tribal rhythms getting a workout in musical director Sheilah Walker's hands. The night's anthems are many, including "Push Da Button" and the soaring, uplifting "I'm Here," although it was sometimes difficult to hear the lyrics unless the songbirds determinedly pushed their notes over the orchestra's music.
Alice Walker's novel, written as a series of letters, diary entries and other documents, chronicles the life of Celie, a black woman living in Georgia over a period in the 1930s. The plot is enormously complicated, but suffice to say that is meant to be a vision of hope, faith and liberation, for African-Americans and especially for black women, seen through the eyes of one woman finding herself and her inner strength.
Walker's novel deals with themes such as prejudice, domestic violence, lesbianism and more with brutal honesty. The show does the same, going for the emotional jugular in nearly every scene, often sacrificing storytelling for plucking the heartstrings. Good musicals entertain. Great musicals entertain and leave the audience with something to chew over on the ride home, and it sometimes feels as if "Purple" blasts away with emotional scenes and powerhouse performances in search of a message, not in service of one.
The stage version of "The Color Purple" rolls on for just shy of three hours - complete with 85-minute first act - and every bit of it is an intense, grab-the-armrests, forget-to-breathe roller coaster ride. As good as the show is, it would benefit from just letting the audience recover and reflect between the moving scenes. Pace is as important as power - and the small moments, the snappy humor from the Church Ladies or quips from Sofia, tend to get lost in the rush between the towering showstoppers.
Here's the bottom line. The show is easily the best production to roll through the Philharmonic since "The Drowsy Chaperone" in January of 2008. Are you and everyone around you going to enjoy this show? Yes. The music, acting, sets, glorious costumes and production values are superb. Could it have been better? Potentially, although that's not the fault of anyone on stage.