Like many people I watched the Tony Awards a couple of weeks ago and was absolutely blown away by Cynthia Erivo’s performance and how she brought the house down, completely justifying why she won the award for best actress in a musical. Prior to seeing her perform on television I had absolutely no desire to go see the show, but after what I saw, I knew that I had to book a ticket ASAP and see Erivo perform live. It didn’t hurt that Danielle Brooks (Orange Is the New Black) was a member of the cast, and especially that Heather Headley had recently joined the production (replacing Jennifer Hudson). I am a very big fan of Headley and have all of her albums. Her voice range, tone, and control are absolutely amazing. I couldn’t wait!
I got to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre and sat down waiting for the performance to begin. So imagine my dismay when I flipped open my Playbill and saw that a note insert that stated that Cynthia Erivo would not be performing, and instead would be replaced by an understudy. Furthermore, Danielle Brooks would also be replaced by an understudy. Suddenly, the show I had spent a fairly significant amount of money to see was not the one I had bargained for. I was not going to watch what I thought I would be seeing. I still tried to remain optimistic, but I was thoroughly disappointed and my mood was low. Still, I hoped for the best.
The stage and production are as bare bones as can be. The colors are drab (everything is khaki, literally everything). As opposed to any other show or production, the set of The Color Purple doesn’t change at all throughout the entire show. Just some wood paneled floors, and a wooden wall behind adorned by wooden chairs. Aside from six or seven chairs and a couple of white sheets, there are no props in the entire show. With a set design so basic, the show and performances had better be good.
Anyone who has read Alice Walker’s novel or seen the Steven Spielberg directed adaptation know the story. Celie, a girl who is barren after being a victim of incest and whose two children were taken away from their, and her, father is eventually forced to marry the abusive and unkind Mister. Mister’s son, Harpo, marries the tough as nails Sophia. Mister allows his mistress, Shug Avery, to live in his home. Somehow, Celie befriends Sophia and Shug, but always thinks about her sister Nettie and the fact that they haven’t seen or heard from each other in years. The story is anything but uplifting, but it showcases the plight of people of color soon after having gained their freedom and emancipation, but whose behaviors are still very much tied to the abusive and barbaric treatment imparted upon them as products of slavery. While the pacing of the musical is wonky at times, the story still remains overall intact (even though some characters, especially Sophia, don’t seem to make as much sense as they did in the novel or movie).
Heather Headley, as Shug Avery, was funny and fantastic. Although her role is highly supporting and she doesn’t appear in nearly enough of the show, she brightens every single moment she is on stage. Her voice is flawless and her comedic timing impeccable. She is perfection. The male characters are boring and inconsequential, but ultimately this show is not about them, so I guess that’s ok. The actress replacing Brooks as Sophia was fine and could sing. She was not memorable, but she didn’t do anything offensive or distracting. She lacked star wattage and presence, but Sophia being so marginalized in this production helped in not being too upset. Erivo’s presence, though, was sorely, deeply, devastatingly missed. Her replacement was subpar in every which way and I cannot believe that a Broadway production would allow someone so inept to take center stage and helm something they so clearly have no business appearing in. Why am I being so cruel? Well, for starters the show capitalizes on its stars, and at the Tony’s they put Erivo front and center in order to get people to purchase tickets, and it worked, because I bought mine because of that. Also, I don’t need a star to enjoy a good show. I have seen Wicked or The Book of Mormon (amongst others) with not a star in sight, but the actors on stage knew what the heck they were doing. This girl, who I won’t name because I don’t want to be too mean, seriously could not sing. I actually plugged my ears at one point because her voice was out of tune, flat, and so shrill when she attempted to belt out notes that the sound produced was unbearable. She lacked stage presence, forgot lines, took awkward pauses and looked like she was breaking character in order to take in the experience of actually getting to go on, smiling as people begrudgingly clapped for her. Her comedic timing was way off, she delivered her lines softly and with no apparent awareness that the audience was meant to hear them or comprehend them. She sucked. She sucked bad. I was furious.
The show finally ended and I walked away to the theater in the mess that is Times Square in a depressed and let down somber mood. I was mad that I had spent money on what I had just seen, and I was upset that I wasn’t even given what was promised me. This was the first time I had gone to see a Broadway show and walked out upset and underwhelmed. I guess they say that the show must go on, but this particular one shouldn’t have.