Tony-winning ‘Color Purple’ revival opens at The Smith Center

If you think you’ve already seen “The Color Purple” at The Smith Center, you’re right. And wrong.

Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel — and the 1985 movie adaptation — “The Color Purple” was the first musical to play The Smith Center when it opened in 2012.

But the “Color Purple” that’s opening Tuesday at The Smith Center is a very different production: the 2015 Tony-winning revival.

Smith Center president Myron Martin saw the revival on Broadway — and loved it so much he returned two days later.

“They took away all the superfluous stuff and focused on the story,” Martin says of the revival, noting how the “minimalist set … allows you to focus on the characters and their stories and the music.”

‘Not a spectacle’

That’s by design, according to Tony-winning director John Doyle, who restaged his 2013 London production for Broadway — and the current North American tour.

For one thing, it began in “a very small space,” London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, Doyle notes. “People call it minimalist, but theater is about involving the audience’s imagination.”

Although the original “Color Purple” had a successful Broadway run (and subsequent tours) more than a decade ago, “the critics were a bit questioning of it,” Doyle says. “It was very big in size — a spectacle. This production is not a spectacle.”

Instead, “there was a lot of editing and cutting and changing for the revival,” he explains. “It’s more dependent on the actors themselves,” in keeping with the production’s goal of honoring Walker by getting “to the essence of the story of the book.”

As a result, this adaptation “doesn’t have the bells and whistles” some musicals do, Doyle acknowledges. “The one thing it has in it that is common to most musicals is the idea of redemption.”

Powered by a musical score with echoes of jazz, gospel, ragtime and blues, “The Color Purple” focuses on African-American women finding their way in the rural South during the first half of the 20th century.

Chief among them: Celie (Adrianna Hicks), who begins as an abused teen — and battered wife — before transforming herself into a determined, independent businesswoman, thanks in part to a life-altering relationship with flashy honky-tonk singer Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart).

“Celie is so multifaceted,” Hicks says. “She’s insecure, wishing things would be better,” before “learning to love herself and come into her own.”

As for Shug, she “owns her sass and her sexuality and she’s no longer worried about what people think,” Stewart says. “At least she carries that air.”

‘People want to be uplifted’

To Stewart, the story is both “timeless” and “timely.”

After all, Doyle points out, the Broadway revival arrived “at the height” of the Black Lives Matter movement.

And the #MeToo movement provides a context for the musical’s portrait of women “moving forward and upward,” Stewart observes.

Before signing on to direct the revival, Doyle worried — as a white man born in Scotland — “what could I bring to it that wouldn’t be offensive” to this particular story and setting. “I had to take a lot of responsibility telling a story that’s tremendously important to the African-American community. I felt very sensitive.”

But “the imagination John Doyle” demonstrated in staging the show makes people “lean in and listen to the words,” Stewart says. “The way he directed the story really ministers” to audiences on Broadway — and on tour.

The traveling production is “absolutely identical” to the Broadway revival, Doyle says. “It’s really very much a carbon copy.” As such, it provides “a tremendous opportunity to watch and be touched by the emotional content of the story.”

As Stewart observes, “a lot of people are just broken and want to be restored. People want to be redeemed, people want hope, people want to be uplifted. And the show speaks to that.”

Actresses follow different paths to ‘The Color Purple’

Adrianna Hicks and Carla R. Stewart play Celie and Shug, respectively, in the Tony-winning “Color Purple” revival’s North American tour.

For both of them, joining the “Color Purple” cast represented the fulfillment of a dream.

Hicks first saw the original Broadway production during a spring break trip with high school classmates from her Dallas-area hometown.

“It was the last Broadway show of our trip,” she recalls. “It completely goes full circle.”

Hicks grew up singing in church — and would lock herself in her room to watch video versions of Disney classics. “My VHS tapes were all messed up” from rewinding them “and trying to re-enact these characters. That was my world. I remembered every song and cue.”

And once she saw her first high school musical (“Guys and Dolls”), Hicks realized, “ ‘Wow, this incorporates everything I love to do.’ ”

Carla R. Stewart first saw “The Color Purple” on tour, not on Broadway.

But it wasn’t until she was performing on Broadway in “The Wiz” — and working with some former “Color Purple” cast members — that she realized the latter musical was her destiny, too.

When Stewart told a castmate “ ‘I would love to be in ‘The Color Purple,’ ” her fellow performer replied, “ ‘And you will be,’ ” Stewart remembers her saying. “ ‘I just believe you will be in it.’ ”

Both Hicks and Stewart played multiple roles in the “Color Purple” revival’s Tony-winning run.

“It’s really cool to have so many different perspectives,” Hicks observes of playing a variety of roles.

“I enjoyed my work as an understudy; I just felt really proud of what I had been putting out,” adds Stewart, who played Oda Mae Brown in “Ghost: The Musical’s ” national tour, which played The Smith Center in 2014. “When you’re covering the role, you just have to be ready.”

Contact Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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