Feb. 6 2009 12:00 AM

Entertaining show sanitizes story

Courtesy Paul Koknik - Felicia P. Fields and Stephanie St. James in "The Color Purple."

Oprah Winfrey’s stamp of approval ensures success, whether it’s on a book, TV show, magazine or Broadway musical. It is to media what the USDA is to meat. The difference being that the USDA grades beef, while Winfrey simply ker-chunks a solitary “O” on anything that catches her fancy.

“Oprah Winfrey Presents The Color Purple,” playing at MSU’s Wharton Center through Sunday, is a “Grade O” showcase of strong voices, attractive actors and tough-willed women who sizzle and smoke up the stage.

The musical tells the story of Celie, a young black Southern woman in the 1930s who is married off to an abusive man looking for someone to raise his children, keep his house clean and his bed warm. Through her relationships with stronger women, like jazz singer Shug Averyand and her daughter-in-law, Sofia, Celie undergoes a journey of self-discovery.

The production features many actors who originated their roles on Broadway, including Felicia P. Fields. Fields earned a Tony Award nomination in 2006 for her portrayal of Sofia, a bull of a woman who marries Celie’s stepson, Harpo. Winfrey portrayed Sofia in the 1985 film version of “The Color Purple,” so it makes sense this would be a pivotal role in the musical. The character elicits the most response from the audience. She is more than just the sassy foil to Celie’s wallflower. The audience identifies with her proto-feminist character and admires her unabashed confidence and sexuality. Without a doubt, the steamiest moment of the play is her duet with Harpo, “Any Little Thing,” as they finally achieve true equality in their relationship. Fields is fantastic in the role, eliciting laughter and pathos, the latter when she takes her sass act a step too far.

At Thursday evening’s show, lanky understudy Horace V. Rogers played the role of Celie’s wretch of a husband, Mister. For most of the play, it is hard to look past the character’s repulsive flaws and appreciate the actor’s skill.  Rogers finally gets to play nice for “Celie’s Curse,” a shining moment for character and player.

The set is functional enough, but there is something artificial about the way the pieces slide on and off stage. The lighting creates an effective atmosphere, but the use of spotlights is sometimes distracting. The costumes are fantastic; despite that the cast members do the singing, their pants are the real stars of the number “Miss Celie’s Pants.”

Yet for all the quality exhibited by this talented cast, the musical still deserves a “Grade B” stamp. It’s entertaining, but it pales compared to Alice Walker’s novel, upon which it is based, and the subsequent Academy Award-nominated film. The musical serves as a nice alternative telling of Walker’s story for those who have seen the movie or read the book, but anyone unfamiliar with the story would easily be lost. Too much exposition is given in song, and this shorthand saps much of the gravity of Celie’s situation. This is a sanitized version of an epic, often-claustrophobic tale of a woman discovering herself and winning her freedom.

Gone is the stifling cloud of fear under which Celie lives, and the impact of her resignation to her fate is neutralized by the song and dance. The moment in which Mister tears Celie from her sister, Nettie, is sad, but not as heart wrenching as in the film; and when the sisters are reunited, a scene in the book that is so trong, both characters fall to the ground, becomes a chummy hug on stage. And the key event of Celie discovering her sexuality is reduced to a chaste kiss.

The show is touted as “a musical about love,” but the original novel was about so much more. It was about journeys of discovery and growth as undertaken by several characters. The musical plays as a series of entertaining vignettes, accessible mostly to those who have read the book or watched the movie.

‘The Color Purple’

Through Feb. 8

8 p.m. Friday

2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday

1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Wharton Center


1 (800) WHARTON