Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"The Color Purple" on Tour

I saw the original Broadway production of The Color Purple in 2006 and, I must admit, I laughed and cried and thought it was better than Cats. However, upon a second viewing of the national tour in the beautiful and historic Wang Theatre, I was left with a sense of antipathy. Why my ardor should cool so quickly is a mystery to me and I can't help but wonder, "What does a show lose when it transfers from Broadway to the road?"

Certainly none of the performances were compromised as many of the original cast members have joined this first national tour. Seeing the TONY-award winning performance of LaChanze was magical, but Kenita Miller's performance as Celie is just as fitting and worthy of accolade. Felicia Fields as Sofia is just as robust and comical as she was on Broadway. However, Angela Robinson's performance as Shug Avery suggested that she might be fighting a cold or withholding her voice. The signature numbers "What about Love?" and "The Color Purple" definitely suffered either due to the fact that they were way out of vocal range for the performers or because the sound balance was off.

And the sound balance was the biggest problem of the production. Having worked in the touring industry, I understand that sound is one of the most problematic aspects of touring a show. Each house is different although the technical equipment that the tour is given is the same. It really seems to be a no-win situation, especially considering a cavernous space such as the Wang. Although it is a beautiful theatre, after seeing this production I completely understand why Broadway Across America takes their performances to the Opera House or the Colonial Theatre. Many important aspects of the production were lost due to poor sound mixing such as the lyrics of the Church Ladies' Greek Chorus-style commentary and the volume level of Celie's anthemic "I'm Here." However, my surrounding audience members didn't seem disturbed by the lack of amplification and the show was received as warmly in this primarily African-American audience as it was on Broadway.

I wonder, however, how well Jersey Boys will play in the same space. Interestingly, Jersey Boys has sold out from July through October whereas The Color Purple has barely sold enough for a two-week run. I can't help but think that this is due to the racism inherent in theatre audiences. This racism is apparent in the Broadway industry across the board. Jersey Boys won the TONY Award for best musical in 2006 against The Color Purple. Historically, musicals that challenge the status quo don't fare at the TONY awards as well as those that reify white, middle-class priviledge and standards. Examples include: The Will Roger's Follies over Once on this Island in 1991; Nine winning over Dreamgirls in 1982; and The Music Man winning over West Side Story in 1958. The legacy of the TONY award is definitely as much about politics as it is about product.

Take last year's TONY Award-winning musical, In the Heights, a Disney-esque, melodramatic (aka Univision) performance that ghettoizes the Latino culture within the purview of the Great White Way. Meanwhile my self-aggrandizing snobbery must admit that the audience with which I saw In the Heights was the most diverse of any Broadway audience I have ever been a part of, including The Color Purple (the latter was primarily African-American while the former included every color of the spectrum and, presumably, every socio-economic status). Meanwhile, the thought-inducing and racially-charged Passing Strange passed virtually unnoticed by TONY voters while it offered a far more intellectual and interesting comment on the presentation of race on the stage. Luckily, Passing Strange has been slated for a Spike Jones film while In the Heights is scheduling its first national tour, which I'm sure will play to major American cities with high ticket sales and without a thought as to the white privilege reified through this very work. My estimation is that white people feel good when they can see a show that presents "otherness" within a safety net of good storytelling without a challenge to their status quo. The Color Purple presents this challenge as it gears its delivery to the African-American audience. The fact that this musical was overlooked for an essentially jukebox musical of dubious merit shows how far we have to go before achieving any semblance of justice for all. The fact that Jersey Boys is outselling The Color Purple at the Wang Theatre is no more than a reflection of the racism of the theatre-going audience in Boston and the racism that continues to pervade our culture and our arts.

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