CLEARWATER — Kenita R. Miller is not your typical Broadway musical ingenue. Her flat, almost masklike face is not particularly pretty, she's short and stocky — with the compact, muscular body of a gymnast — and she's black.
But then Miller isn't playing a typical musical theater character. It's 1909, and she's a downtrodden girl in rural Georgia, a victim of incest by her father. Her two children are taken away from her, and she is led to believe that her beloved sister is dead. As a teenager, she's traded like livestock to a brutish husband who puts her down as poor, ugly and black, and beats her. "God forgot about me," she laments.
Still, despite all this grimness, Miller is a wonderfully uplifting presence, flashing a huge grin that lights up the theater as she plays Celie, the heroine of The Color Purple. She leads the all-black cast that is giving a tremendous performance of the stage version of Alice Walker's novel this week at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
As a musical The Color Purple is more about feelings than it is about the story, which is hopelessly convoluted in playwright Marsha Norman's adaptation, especially in the cobbled-together second act. If you want the story, then read the novel, told through letters by Celie and her sister, Nettie, a missionary in Africa, and Celie's letters to God. But if you already know the story from the book (or the Steven Spielberg movie), then the musical becomes a rich communal experience in which hope and despair, love and self-loathing, lust and spirituality come together to create feelings of joy.
The Color Purple is one touring musical that gives the audience its money's worth in the pit. With 18 players in the orchestra, alertly conducted by Sheilah Walker, the score by three pop songwriters with their first Broadway show (Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray) is a tasty stew of gospel, blues and theater music. The opening scene in church is terrific, featuring big Doug Eskew as a Bible-thumping, spirit-possessed preacher.
Emotionally, the heart of The Color Purple is not the relationship between Celie and Nettie (La Toya London), which never goes much beyond sisterly hugs. Instead, the real action is between Celie and Shug Avery, a juke joint singer played by the excellent Angela Robinson. They have a tender love affair that Shug constantly breaks up by leaving for some guy. Celie always takes her wayward partner back. Finally, in Miller's wrenchingly moving performance, Celie draws the line in her epiphany, I'm Here.
Tuesday's opening show drew attendance of 1,751, with a much higher proportion of African-Americans than usual for a Broadway musical. A crowd favorite was the rough love between Sofia, a hefty Moms Mabley type hilariously portrayed by Lynette DuPree, and her hunky on-again-off-again husband, Harpo (Stu James). When Sofia indignantly said to Celie, "You told Harpo to beat me? I love Harpo, God knows I do," people in the audience shouted out the rest of her line: "But I'll kill 'em dead before I let him or anybody beat me!"
With domestic violence as a theme, men do not come across well in The Color Purple, though they are treated somewhat less contemptuously than in the movie. There is a redemption number for Mister, Celie's husband, and Rufus Bonds Jr. presents the case that he was the victim of abuse, too, in a high, aching tenor.
Director Gary Griffin's staging makes good use of a trio of Church Ladies (Kimberly Ann Harris, Virginia Ann Woodruff and Phyre Hawkins), and their glorious harmonies are topped only by their Sunday hats. Paul Tazewell's costume design also include the snazzy pants that Celie peddles in her improbable career as a couturier. Donald Byrd's choreography is at its best for the men's numbers. But the dancey African Homeland pageant that comes right after intermission seems pointless, and the second act never recovers.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.