Before the Oprahfication of “The Color Purple, ” it began life as a remarkable Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the African-American experience that introduced its memorable characters through a series of heartfelt letters. The Steven Spielberg film lost the “voice” of letter writer and recipient Celie, and that loss of perspective made a cinematic melodrama that glorified its heroines at the expense of any men or whites, all of whom were portrayed as evil as every German in “Schindler’s List” or every adult in “E.T.” It didn’t help that Quincy Jones provided a schmaltzy Eurocentric orchestral score as if he were scoring a Hallmark Hall of Fame special. Happily, “The Color Purple” as a play returns to an experience far truer to the novel by restoring Celie’s voice, literally. Drawing mostly upon African-American gospel and church-music idioms, this tale of “the spirit,” as author Alice Walker first dubbed it, is unleashed by raising the characters’ voices triumphantly in song. There are many Chicago connections here, including director Gary Griffin and Felicia P. Fields as Sofia, both making spectacular homecomings after their Broadway debuts in this production. But another Chicagoan, former Destiny’s Child vocalist Michelle Williams, also gives a glorious turn as Shug Avery, trumping the Broadway portrayal and obviously starting a major theatrical career for herself. Even gospel singer Jeanette Bayardelle—the understudy for LaChanze on Broadway who took over when she left—makes a more convincing Celie than LeChanze did and her climactic flowering is a vocal wonder and truly inspiring moment. As for the most obvious Chicago connection of Oprah Winfrey as producer and brand name, on the down side, has ensured that optimistic and redemptive moments always manage to trump life’s lowest moments as opportunities for setting recitatives and arias when ironically, the willingness to have the characters sing out rather than simply speak their cries of utter despair would have ensured a work of more satisfying and even-handed contrast. On the up side, Winfrey’s presence and involvement has generated a greater public interest in a stage work and in an opening than can be remembered in a long, long time here, and if Oprahfication translates into some of her vast talk-show audience turning off their televisions long enough to give a live stage work a try, that is an undeniable positive for the art form. (Dennis Polkow)
“The Color Purple” runs at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph, (312)902-1400, through July 22.