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    Stage Review

    An unforgettable portrait of strength, spirit in ‘The Color Purple’

    Adrianna Hicks (on chair) and the touring production cast of “The Color Purple.”
    Matthew Murphy
    Adrianna Hicks (on chair) and the touring production cast of “The Color Purple.”

    Few if any musical-theater heroines have ever been forced to cope with more harrowing circumstances than Celie faces in “The Color Purple.’’

    Because Celie’s journey is so eventful, wrenching, and ultimately stirring, big rewards can flow to the actress who seizes this complex role and makes it her own. Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal in the recent Broadway revival was a career breakout that made her a star.

    If there is any justice, the same thing will happen to Adrianna Hicks. Remember that name. If you see “The Color Purple’’ at the Shubert Theatre, chances are you’ll never forget Hicks, because her performance as Celie is nothing short of transcendent.


    This touring production is directed by John Doyle, who has made sure that the musical — adapted from Alice Walker’s novel and the 1985 movie version — retains the propulsive, streamlined qualities that made his 2015 revival land in New York with such pronounced impact.

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    While Broadway is virtually synonymous with bloat, there’s hardly an ounce of fat on this show. Seeing “The Color Purple’’ again, I was struck by the sheer velocity with which the musical moves, and how skillfully the forces of intergenerational family history and systemic racism and female solidarity are woven through its story. We are able to focus intently on that story, in part, because Doyle’s minimalist aesthetic extends to the set, which he designed. It consists of three towering vertical structures to which chairs are appended, a dozen other chairs strewn about the stage, and a few woven baskets. That’s about it.

    The score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray was always a strength (the title song is a shiver-inducing gem), but Doyle helped turn a good musical into an exceptional one by trimming all that was superfluous in the original 2005 production. Of equal importance, Hicks is surrounded in Boston by a terrific supporting cast, including Carla R. Stewart as the glamorous nightclub singer Shug Avery and Carrie Compere as the indomitable Sofia.

    It is Sofia and Shug who begin to change the balance of power in Celie’s world, mapping through their example a possible path to independence. But Celie herself deserves most of the credit, because the weight of her life in rural Georgia in the early 1900s, particularly the cruelties visited upon her by men, would crush a lesser spirit. Doyle underscores her isolation in an early scene, when Hicks’s Celie faces upstage while the ensemble sings the ebullient “Mysterious Ways.’’

    First her childhood is taken from Celie — sexually abused by the man she believes is her father, she has delivered two babies by the time she is 14 — and then her beloved sister Nettie (the luminous N’Jameh Camara) is taken from her. Celie is forced to marry a glowering farmer she knows only as Mister (Gavin Gregory). When he first walks onstage, Mister holds a coiled whip, and his subsequent treatment of Celie is almost unimaginably callous, essentially subjecting her to a form of domestic servitude.


    That Celie doesn’t just survive that ordeal but ultimately triumphs over the course of four decades is a testament to her sheer will and her quiet strength. When Celie finally decides she is done being quiet, Hicks endows the scene with an emotional wallop that just about knocks you flat.

    Even before that stirring declaration of autonomy, though, Hicks makes you feel the churning depths beneath the mesmerizing stillness of her Celie. There’s not a single false note in Hicks’s performance, whether it’s her heart-piercing rendition of “Somebody Gonna Love You,’’ which Celie sings to her newborn child; or her ardent duet with Stewart’s Shug on “What About Love?’’; or her knockout solo “I’m Here,’’ Celie’s thrilling anthem of self-realization, which brought down the house at the performance I attended.

    So, by the way, did Stewart’s performance of the sexually assertive “Push da Button’’ and Compere’s robust rendition of Sofia’s I-won’t-be-bossed song “Hell No!’’ Conducted by music director Darryl Archibald, the orchestra does sterling work throughout, as does J. Daughtry as Mister’s well-meaning son, Harpo, and the rest of the ensemble

    But it is Hicks who primarily holds the spotlight, without being showy about it. Simply put, she’s a powerhouse, and so is this production.


    Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. Book by Marsha Norman. Based on the novel by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment film. Direction and musical staging by John Doyle. Presented by Boch Center at Shubert Theatre, Boston, through Dec. 3. Tickets $48-$110, 866-348-9738,

    Don Aucoin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin