By LAWSON TAITTE / The Dallas Morning News
Epic novels often have a rough transition to the stage: Events fly by so fast they feel like a historical pageant rather than a play.
Oprah Winfrey presents The Color Purple, the stage musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel, exhibits such symptoms early on. The Dallas Summer Musicals opened the area premiere, its 2008 State Fair show, on Tuesday at Fair Park Music Hall.
The childhoods of the heroine, Celie (Jeannette Bayardelle), and her sister are over after two short choruses of the opening song. Horrors of domestic violence bump rudely against stylized comedy, even in the scenes in which Sofia (Felicia P. Fields) begins to show Celie she doesn’t have to accept the abuse that has been heaped on her all her life.
The show really doesn’t come to life, though, until the notorious Shug Avery (Angela Robinson) returns to town. Shug was the true love of Celie’s cruel husband, Mister (Rufus Bonds Jr.), but convention prevented them from marrying. Mister takes his disappointment out on Celie for years. During one of Shug’s periodic visits home, though, Celie nurses her back to health and the two women develop a sisterly relationship that eventually turns sexual. As this happens over the last half hour of the first act, we finally get characters interacting with one another.
The second acts ratchets things up by finding some creative solutions to the problems of long-range storytelling. To begin with, a dream – or rather a letters – ballet, spectacularly set in Africa, shows Celie what has become of her long lost sister. The successive stages of Celie’s evolution into a free woman each get a neatly turned scene or song, or both.
The score doesn’t have many grab-you tunes, a disappointment given the rich musical styles of the early 20th century, in which the story is set. But the performers are uniformly terrific, dramatically as well as vocally.
The gorgeously designed sets and costumes envelop the actors in swirling color. Donald Byrd, a significant modern dance choreographer, has the entire cast moving and shaking.
Occasionally Ms. Bayardelle’s gestures and expressions seem modeled a little too closely on Whoopi Goldberg’s in Steven Spielberg’s film version of The Color Purple. But Ms. Bayardelle does create a character that evokes sympathy and, eventually admiration.
PLAN YOUR LIFE Through Oct. 19 at Fair Park Music Hall. Runs 170 mins. $25 to $77. Ticketmaster at 214-631-2787, http://www.ticketmaster.com/.