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‘The Color Purple’ swings into Boston

Victoria Leenders-Cheng
‘The Color Purple’ swings into Boston

Members of the cast of the first national tour of “The Color Purple: The Musical about Love” perform “Miss Celie’s Pants,” one of many numbers in the show. The touring production opens its two-week run in Boston at the Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theatre this coming Tuesday, June 16, 2009. (Paul Kolnik photos)

(From left): Celie (Kenita R. Miller), Sofia (Felicia P. Fields) and Buster (Lesly Terrell Donald) share a moment in this scene from the first national tour of the hit musical “The Color Purple,” the smash stage adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel.
Members of the cast of “The Color Purple: The Musical about Love” perform the song “African Homeland.” There are 29 musical numbers in the production, each a lively and integral part of the show. One-time “American Idol” finalist LaToya London, who plays the role of Nettie in the production, called the music in the show “just incredible.”

“The Color Purple: The Musical about Love” opens with a gust of blaring horns, whining harmonicas, soaring voices and honky-tonk piano. The production, which begins its two-week Boston engagement on Tuesday, June 16, features 29 musical numbers, each a lively and integral part of the show.

Cast member and one-time “American Idol” finalist LaToya London gushed when asked to describe the music in “The Color Purple.”

“The music is just incredible,” she said, her voice softening with awe as she paid homage to Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film version of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. “I was very surprised they weren’t using the same music as in the movie … and I wondered how that would go over. But the music [in the Broadway version] is so good, you don’t realize you’re not hearing the same music.”

Producer Scott Sanders spent eight years obtaining permission to create a musical of “The Color Purple.” Walker’s story follows Celie, a woman abused by her father, sold into marriage and separated from her children and sister. Sanders’ greatest challenge was convincing potential producers that a Broadway version could measure up to the critically-acclaimed book and film.

Music was a crucial element from the start. As is recounted in the musical’s companion memory book, Sanders wanted to set “The Color Purple” to lyrics and melodies because he believed that “music is a way to express emotions that transcend words, and that the message, the heartbeat of Walker’s story … sang.”

“It’s beautiful, the way it’s constructed,” said London, who plays Celie’s plucky sister Nettie, of the music. “The chords represent a mood and they go with what’s going on in the scene … Every night, I’m in my dressing room singing other people’s songs, thinking, ‘How would I sing that song? I wish I had that duet.’”

The show ran for more than two years on Broadway, backed by a team of producers that includes Oprah Winfrey — who appeared in Spielberg’s film as Sofia, a role played in the Boston production by Felicia P. Fields — as well as Hollywood moguls Bob and Harvey Weinstein and musician Quincy Jones. The national tour kicked off in Chicago in 2007 and the Boston production includes a number of the original cast members.

Kenita R. Miller started off as an understudy for both Celie and Nettie in the Broadway cast and eventually played Celie for a few months before the end of the New York production’s run. She reprises that role in the national tour, and noted that the character of Celie is a model of resilient strength.

“Celie is abused in every sense of word from a very young age,” Miller said. “Her father physically and sexually abused her, and she was married off at 16 into an abusive relationship. This character is somebody I really admire and look up to, and I only hope as I grow as an individual that I can attain some of the character she has.”

Alluding to Celie’s relationship with the vibrant Shug Avery (played in Boston by Angela Robinson) and her eventual forgiveness of her husband, Miller added, “It takes a pretty dynamic person to still be open to people saying, ‘I love you.’

“Some people would become introverted having lived through those circumstances, and the fact that this character can still be open to giving and receiving love is something that’s pretty unusual,” she said.

London’s character, Nettie, wards off a sexual advance from Celie’s husband but is then sent away from her sister. Like Miller, London said she took strength from her character’s actions.

“No matter what the situation, she’s like, ‘Hold on, you can get through this,’ or ‘You shouldn’t take this,’” she said.

At their parting, Nettie promises to write to Celie and eventually travels to Africa with a missionary family.

“She’s very brave and gives her sister a lot of hope,” London said.”“She’s that little dynamite and I love what her character stands for.”

As with the book and film, the musical is a meditation on love and forgiveness, strength and sorrow, as well as doubt and faith.

Its message is as timely as ever, Miller said, and is presented in a whirlwind of gut bucket blues with a strong gospel feel.

“With what we’re going through with the first black president, it’s kind of showing how the world is ready for a healing and a forgiveness,” she said. “The show carries that same note of forgiveness and it’s pretty powerful.”

 “‘The Color Purple’ is basically about helping to heal people in their relationships with each other, and with the earth, the planet,” author Walker writes in the introduction to “The Color Purple: A Memory Book.”

“We need to decolonize our spirits in the same way that we try to decolonize our thoughts. Our brains,” she adds. “This is a very long journey.”

“The Color Purple” opens on Tuesday, June 16, 2009, and runs through Sunday, June 28, 2009, at the Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont Street, Boston. Tickets range from $28-$100; all prices include a $3 facility-education/public programming fee per ticket.

For show times and tickets, call 866-348-9738, visit http://www.citicenter.org, or purchase them in person at the Citi Performing Arts Center Box Office. Discounted tickets are available for groups of 15 or more by calling Citi Performing Arts Center Group Sales at 617-532-1116.

For more information, visit http://www.citicenter.org.