If you never saw the movie (Whoopi and Oprah? Go watch it! Also Gayle King is in it, uncredited. Opes never did anything without her), it’s about a tortured abused little girl who continues to have it pretty shitty as an adult until lesbianism saves her. I mean I joke but it is roughly that if you think about it. In more detail, it’s the entire epic story of a girl named Celie, her life from when we meet her at 14-years-old until decades later, from as bad as it gets to, well, better, and with cooler pants.
At the start, Celie is pregnant with her second child (at 14) by her rapist abusive father. When she gives birth, her father takes the baby away as he did the last one, Celie praying that they find good homes but the audience (and other characters) assuming that he kills them because he’s pretty much the worst person imaginable. Celie loves her younger sister Nettie (a great Joaquina Kalukango, which is a sick name with lots of k sounds) and they play together because they are children and they pray and they sing, which is the nice part for us because damn, their voices are beautiful. Somehow, Erivo really convinces you that she’s a young kid at the start, as does Joaquina. They’re adorable and you buy their sisterly bond. It’s pretty spectacular how Erivo grows over the course of 2 ½ hours, how her demeanor changes and most impressively her voice. Then, the evil man we know only as Mister comes by requesting to marry Nettie. Mister is played by Isaiah Johnson as incredibly hateful and evil for most of the show but then we really buy his remorse and atonement at the end somehow. He was very good. I ran into him a few blocks from the theatre after I saw it and was like “oh my god I just saw your show!” and he was like “Cool what did you think!” and I was like “You were a bastard!” I didn’t say that. I forget what I said because then Montego Glover came by and they are friends and I was just standing there like, should I sneak away quietly? Say goodbye and risk her being like who the f are you? Or just awkwardly wait? I did a mix of all three. So the father is like, Nettie is too young and too pretty to give away just yet, take Celie, she’s ugly so I’ll throw in a cow. They comment a lot about how ugly Celie is, which is ridiculous because Cynthia is a goddess but men are filth. So Celie is sent to be a wife and mother to Mister’s children, even though she’s a child, and it’s just a new man to run her life and abuse her horribly. It’s pretty depressing, but there’s some amazing comic relief in the form of the Church Ladies, the gossipy biddies who comment and cluck about all the goings on in the community, and they are ridiculously funny, singing their comments in rounds and just being hilarious.
Soon, Nettie runs away to Celie’s house after their father turns his attention to her, but then Mister, being an equally despicable person, tries to do the same, so Nettie fights him and is banished from the property. Celie writes letters to Nettie but never hears from her so she assumes she’s dead, not the truth that Mister would of course be hiding Nettie’s letters to keep Celie from ever feeling hope or joy again. Mister really was a bastard.
Years pass, and Mister’s son Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe, not Oprah’s production company) grows up and falls in love with Sofia, the best baddest-ass broad in town, played by Danielle Brooks from “Orange is the New Black” in all her hilarious and awesome glory. Not stunt casting; she went to Juilliard. Sofia is strong and doesn’t take any shit from Harpo or anyone, so Celie, poor, weak Celie who is so victimized that she can’t see that her oppression is wrong, is befuddled by her for a while. After Harpo tries to exert his male dominance over Sofia and instead Sofia beats him up, Sofia leaves town, and Shug Avery, the famous jazz singer, comes to town. Even though everything and everyone is at the highest performance grade here, you can’t help but feel the energy level rise when Hudson gets on stage. It’s pretty exciting to have someone of her celebrity on Broadway, and in a role so right for her. Her acting skills, or lack thereof, are pretty notorious, but she worked really hard here and is perfectly cast, doing a great job in all aspects of the role. A very impressive debut for an established celebrity. In fact, she will probably be nominated for a Tony, and if it weren’t for the aforementioned Renee Elise Goldsberry and the fact that Hudson is leaving the show next week, she could very well win, because people are so impressed with how well she did and, of course, so eager to bestow love on her in the form of awards to make her like them as all voters do.
So Shug is the long-time mistress of Mister, and she stays in their house and Celie is just like who is this magical person, totally intrigued and eventually in love. Shug does her part to help Mister stop beating Celie at least while she’s in the house, so that’s nice, but eventually they have their own thing and it’s quite lovely. Hudson and Erivo have wonderful, surprising chemistry, and I don’t know how Heather Headley will do in this aspect of the role when she takes over for Hudson. Shug’s love and support helps Celie recognize her own power and worth and it’s all very moving and I’m skipping a lot because I don’t want to continue going through all the details and I don’t want to spoil things for you if you haven’t seen this yet.
Aside from being a pretty darn flawless production of an emotionally moving show, the real conversation in the theatre community is about how it took this long for Erivo to get over here and why, given all the British crap Americans mindlessly and greedily gobble up, this British gem is so unknown to audiences. Well, previously unknown. She’s become the toast of the town, rightly so, and will be accepting a Tony in June if they are based on merit, which I mean awards usually aren’t but we can still hope for her. Her precise control of Celie’s growth keeps the audience by her side the whole time, so when she lets go towards the end with her big numbers, you’re both shocked at what she has been keeping inside and also you somehow just knew she had it in her. This is the kind of performance that people pray to the theatre gods to witness one day. There are videos on youtube of her singing her big 11 o’clock number “I’m Here”, so if you can’t see the show you should go watch those. But seeing this performance live, this entire flawless show, is indeed a religious experience, and not just because the majority of the audience is acting like they are at church, hooting and hollering and responding at times with “yes SING IT” and “mm hmm”s and “praise, praise” and oh my god, I’m sure you think I’m going to complain about this because I usually would, but here it is THE BEST. An effusive audience elevates this experience to a whole new level, like we are all a part of it and in it together. And it is quite special to bear witness to what is happening onstage, so the gospel church-like atmosphere reminds you that this is actually happening and that you are lucky to be a part of it.
Like I said, energetic, 100% into it, and effusive – well the good ones are. You’ll still get the annoying people on their phones (like Aretha!). But this is the rare show that makes it clear how important the audience is to live theatre so you better be present.
It’s packed, too packed (and they’re too famous) to take pictures, but they all signed quickly at least for the people around the very small barricades. At least when I went, it was just one barricade leading out onto the street, perpendicular to the theatre/street, instead of several along the side of the theatre. Maybe this is to minimize celebrity interaction with plebs, but it definitely minimizes your ability to get autographs. They go very fast and it’s all very loud so there’s no real chance to say anything other than thank you. People are super pushy but that’s not show-specific, unfortunately!