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Theater: The Color Purple

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The Color Purple. Photo by Paul Kolnik


By: Marsha Norman, book; Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, score

At: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph

Phone: 312-902-1400; $28-$85

Through July 22


Anybody who is anybody in Chicago knows that The Color Purple is the must-see event of the theater season.

Die-hard Oprah Winfrey fans will feel her sense of pride at the homecoming for the 2005 Broadway musical version of The Color Purple, now launching its national tour at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre. Chicago's media sensation talk show host was nominated for an Academy Award as Sophia in Stephen Spielberg's 1985 film version of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, catapulting Winfrey to super-stardom ( she's also got her name attached as the show's big-name producer ) .

There's also a civic pride angle to The Color Purple with its Chicago homecoming for director Gary Griffin and Tony Award-nominated actress Felicia P. Fields ( playing Sofia ) . Both of these long-time local theater stalwarts made their critically acclaimed Broadway debuts with this show.

And then there's the pop celebrity factor to the Chicago production. Michelle Williams, a 'Survivor' of the now defunct trio Destiny's Child, has fun starring as the loose honky-tonk singer Shug Avery ( though she's a tad too skinny for my vision of the voluptuous chanteuse ) . American Idol'diva fans can also get their fix, with finalist LaToya London ( from the same season that spawned Academy Award-winner Jennifer Hudson and winner Fantasia Barrino ) starring as the devoted sister Nettie.

Yeah, yeah, the civic pride and celebrity angles are all great, but what about the show itself you might ask?

Well, you're definitely going to love the Miss Celie of Jeannette Bayardelle. Going from a sexually and physically abused African-American girl ( at the hands of Rufus Bonds, Jr.'s villainous husband, Mister ) to a successful businesswoman with a strong sense of self, sexuality and love of God, Bayardelle's Celie is truly the most moving performance and overall dimension of the show.

The rest of the cast also pile on mountain-loads of performance energy and a prideful love to be part of The Color Purple, particularly in the aforementioned turns by London, Williams and Fields ( who pairs nicely with a spunky Stu James, who plays Sofia's husband, Harpo ) .

My major problem with The Color Purple is it all feels too rushed. In adapting Walker's glorious novel, the show's writing team of playwright Marsha Norman, with songwriters Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray all seem pressured to include practically every incident from the novel.

That's OK for completist fans, but you'll need to pay close attention if you're a Color Purple newbie. The speedy steamrolling of each intricate plot points feels like a race to beat the clock instead of allowing the audience to fully luxuriate in the characters' emotional revelations.

Aside from its panting pace, The Color Purple works as an unabashedly embracing and emotional experience. It's got powerhouse singing, a sturdy staging and, most importantly, a message of love triumphing over life's hardships.

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