The Paper Mill Playhouse is not reinventing the wheel with its current production of “The Color Purple.” John Doyle, who directed and did the scenic design for the acclaimed 2015 Broadway revival, has the same role here and, in the program, describes his work at the Millburn theater as putting “a few finishing touches on” the musical. Cast members in most of the major roles have already worked together in a national “The Color Purple” tour, from October 2017 to August 2018.
Of course, there’s no rule that says you have to reinvent the wheel each time. And “The Color Purple” remains, here, the same powerful, inspiring piece of theater it has always been.
Based, as you probably know already, on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel (which was also made into a movie in 1985), “The Color Purple” is set in Georgia, in the first half of the 20th century, and revolves around a poor woman, Celie, who had been abused as a child, and then endures a horrific marriage, but eventually overcomes all obstacles to emerge as a strong, independent survivor. It’s a life-affirming tale, and the message is aided by generous doses of gospel in the songs (co-written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray).
Celie and the two assertive women who serve as role models for her, Sofia (Carrie Compere) and Shug (Carla R. Stewart), are all given show-stopping numbers. Each actor rises to the occasion, admirably, as does Gavin Gregory as Celie’s abusive husband, Mister, who eventually sees the errors of his ways and sings about his transformation in a song, “Celie’s Curse,” that has the thunderous drama of an evangelist’s sermon.
There is a mythical quality to the plot — as well as a subplot involving Celie’s sister, Nettie (N’Jameh Camara), from whom she is heartbreakingly separated for many years before the two are almost magically reunited. In a clever touch, a group of church ladies serves as a kind of Greek chorus, gossiping about what’s going on without directly being involved in the action. The church ladies turn into African ladies when the action moves, briefly, to Africa.
Doyle’s set has a large back wall, upon which about 50 wooden chairs are affixed. Wooden chairs are occasionally used in the staging as well, with various characters standing on them.
I don’t think the wall really added anything to the musical itself, but it was kind of cool to look at: A bunch of ordinary things, arranged in such a way as to become remarkable. Which is what “The Color Purple” is, in a way: The tale of a woman who doesn’t seem to have many options to escape the dead-end life she is leading, but who still finds a way to blossom.
The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn presents “The Color Purple” through Oct. 21. Visit papermill.org.