I remember reading some time ago that Barbara Cook, the venerable Broadway and concert singer, had attended the musical “The Color Purple” on Broadway and was so moved by Fantasia’s performance as Celie that she saw the show twice. I now know why. For it is this young woman’s performance that transforms an excellent show into a truly compelling, not-to-be-missed event. The Theater of the Stars is presenting the show at the Fox through September 27.
Now Ms. Cook is also known as a teacher of master classes on singing; she particularly stresses the importance of the lyrics of a song and of establishing character in singing. In Fantasia’s Celie she saw what I saw: Every once in a while a role and a performer are so completely and seamlessly wedded that an alchemy takes place; the actress and the character become one. I’m well aware that Fantasia Barrino’s original fame came from winning “American Idol” in 2004; but what the girl from High Point, North Carolina, is doing onstage at the Fox surpasses any performance I’ve ever seen on that mega-popular TV show.
She’s an artist now, and whether she ever again finds a role in which she so completely immerses herself (word is she’ll do the movie version of the musical), her career will flourish as long as she chooses to perform. But she is not alone on that stage. (Does everyone know that Alice Walker wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book and that Stephen Spielberg directed the 1985 non-musical movie?) The show is directed by Gary Griffin; the book is by Marsha Norman; the music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. The story takes place in Georgia between 1909 and 1949 and deals with an oppressed and abused young black girl named Celie, who is gentle and vulnerable, but still one of nature’s real survivors. She is separated from her sister Nettie (La Toya London) when both are children and forced to marry the bullying Mister (Rufus Bonds, Jr.). She soon finds an ally in the funny and powerful Sofia (Felicia P. Fields).
It is the beautiful femme fatale Shug Avery (Angela Robinson), however, who shows Celie that real love and tenderness exist and are transformational. Their duet (“What About Love?) that ends Act I is touching and sublime. I was so moved by that moment and by the magic of Fantasia’s Celie that at intermission, when my companion asked me how I liked the show, I could not speak. Theatre lover that I am, I live for moments like that. They are rare.
“The Color Purple” has certainly been tweaked and polished since that first Atlanta tryout which I saw at the Alliance in 2004; Act II, which now has a beautiful opening a la “The Lion King,” is still about ten minutes too long. But so what? The wondrous Fantasia’s rendition of “I’m Here” near the end more than compensates. The entire cast is marvelous. 2009 is quickly turning into the best fall Atlanta theatre opening in many a moon. Websites: www.theaterofthestars.com or www.ticketmaster.com.