Monday, June 17, 2024

Broadway: “Color Purple” Scores a Huge Hit Opening with Jennifer Hudson and Overnight Star Cynthia Erivo


“The Color Purple” played on Broadway from 2005 to 2008 and no one really liked it. Good actors appeared in it, including Fantasia, and it didn’t matter. It was just all wrong, even with Oprah Winfrey as executive producer.

Now the musical based on Alice Walker’s beloved novel is back, but it’s completely different. Re-imagine by John Doyle, this “Color Purple” should be considered a new musical and not a revival. Last night at the much smaller Jacobs Theater (the first version was in the huge Broadway Theatre), “Color Purple” scored as an astonishing hit, bringing the audience to its feet before the show even ended.

Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, looking for less responsibility and some fun, plays secondary character Shug Avery and she is a delight. Her Shug slithers sexily across the stage, and sings like an angel. Hudson will pick up a Tony next June for featured actress in a musical, I’m sure.

The “star” of this show, however, is overnight sensation Cynthia Erivo. She’s 27, and British. She came with this production from London. She has no idea how her world was changed Thursday night. She wakes up this morning as the toast of the town. Hudson, who’s been there, can be of some guidance. (At 34, Jennifer is the “elder.” Hah!)

In the audience last night: Clive Davis, Valerie Simpson, R&B superstar Freddie Jackson, Gayle King, Tommy Tune, Bill Condon (who directed Hudson to an Oscar in “Dreamgirls”), Neil Patrick Harris, Tamron Hall, Ellen Burstyn, Patina Miller, Margaret Avery (who played Shug in the Spielberg movie), Gloria Steinem, Harvey Fierstein, the great Uzo Aduba and Taylor Schilling (supporting their “Orange is the New Black” castmate Danielle Brooks, so great as Sofia), Kate Mulgrew, and Gabby Sidibe.

During the curtain calls, Alice Walker came out on stage to join Marsha Norman (who wrote the script from Walker’s book) and songwriter Ally Willis (who won the night for most eccentric look). The audience cheered for Walker as if she were a rock star.

Director John Doyle is much awarded and highly regarded for paring big shows down, restoring them to the their true personalities, finding the heart and soul that’s sometimes been lost. This is what he did with “The Color Purple.” He told me after the show that he purposely went back to the original novel. The result is more of a play with music than a show stopping musical.

The real tragedies of Celie and Nettie’s lives are vivid now. The glamour of Shug, the transformation of the heartless “Mister” (or Albert) to some kind of enlightenment, the real wisdom of Sofia– are now grounded for the first time since the movie.

MIA last night– Whoopi Goldberg, who starred in the film, and Oprah, who is still a producer. Who was there: Candy Spelling, a big producer on this show, and a favorite on the Broadway scene these days. She brought along son Randy, former actor, now a life coach and author. He looks just like his late dad, Aaron Spelling.

JHud brought her life partner David Otunga, their six year old son David Jr., and David’s nephew. All the men were decked out in matching cobalt blue jackets. Jennifer was stunning in a gorgeous gown. She’s in the show until May. It’s not long enough. Write “The Color Purple” in now as Best Revival of a Musical. Or “miraculous” revival of a musical.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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