A few lyrics before "Amen" was pronounced in The Color Purple Dec. 10 — the opening night of its revival at the Jacobs Theatre — there was a prolonged pause that lasted well over a minute and came with a celebratory mid-song standing ovation.
"I just couldn't get the words out," Cynthia Erivo explained later at the Copacabana afterparty. "I didn't expect it to have that kind of reception. I didn't expect it to be that way, and I was completely overjoyed. It's just an incredible dream come true."
The Color Purple, With Jennifer Hudson and Cynthia Erivo, Opens on Broadway; Red Carpet, Curtain Call and Party!
The feeling was mutual on both sides of the footlights, I assure you — a case of powerful emotions hurled at the audience and then boomeranging right back to the actors. The stage was awash in tears when the curtain finally came down, and many a strong man was seen dabbing his eyes on the way out of the theatre.
In a star-making Broadway debut, Erivo plays Celie, an African-American teen in rural Georgia during the first half of the 20th century, submitting to the sexual advances of her father so her sister, Nettie, won't have to; bearing two children as a result; losing both; being sold into marriage to a whip-snapping brute she refers to more submissively than respectively as "Mister;" and losing her sister Nettie.
Such abuse hardens a girl, but Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning saga turns out to be a happy ending waiting to happen. Of course, you wait and you wait —through considerable mistreatment and humiliation for Celie — but when it happens, the emotional floodgates open and swamp all in the immediate vicinity.
Hence, the show's trying last moments for Erivo, the lone London cast member recruited for Broadway. She made it through her big 11 o'clock number — Celie's triumphant "I'm Here," which had the house on its feet — but reprising the title tune and getting the same reaction overwhelmed her. It took all she had to get to "Amen."
"This role's been with me for two years," she said. "I played it two years ago at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and now I'm back with her. I love her. She's resilient and strong. She never completely gives up — that's a special quality. And she forgives. It's a big thing for someone to forgive people who have caused that much pain."
As the long-lost sister, Nettie keeps hope and a heartbeat going in the story, since "Mister" cruelly keeps her letters from Celie.
"I watch the show every night," Joaquina Kalukango who plays Nettie admitted, "and the journey of it is just beautiful. By the time we finally come on, it feels complete. I think it's healing for both us and the audience because, to go through all that, you need to have that happy ending."
Kalukango could soon find herself contending for the featured actress Tony with the original Nettie of nine years ago: Hamilton's Renee Elise Goldsberry — to say nothing of two of her current co-stars, Danielle Brooks and Jennifer Hudson in roles that nabbed 2006 nominations for Felicia P. Fields and Elisabeth Withers-Mendes.
The Color Purple is full to the brim with a stainless-steel sisterhood that is played accordingly by Erivo, Brooks and Hudson, all of whom are brand-new to Broadway.
Brooks, a recent Juilliard graduate from Greenville, SC — kept till now under lock and key in "Orange Is the New Black" (she's "Taystee") — has the most extreme arc as Celie's sister-in-law, Sofia, a head-strong, plain-spoken woman who pays a high price for all that. The role made a star and an Oscar nominee of Oprah Winfrey.
"There are so many things I love about Sofia," Brooks confessed. "I love how ferocious she is. I love her sexiness, her humor, how she picks herself back up.
"What I love most about the character is that she gives Celie strength, and, in turn, Celie gives that back to her. They each help the other one find their voice again."
Celie finds another kind of strength from an unlikely source, her husband's hot-to-trot mistress, Shug Avery. It's a flashy, fleshy kind of role, and Hudson goes the distance with it, not just stealing scenes but actually energizing them as well.
In a low-cut evening gown colored purple, she spent the entire opening "party" attending to her star duties, doing press on the second floor and then enduring an endless selfie assault in an alcove on the rooftop, maintaining a fixed smile throughout. It turns out, she is learning, it's pretty strenuous work being a Broadway star.
"Do you know what she told me?" a friend, columnist Roger Friedman, relayed. "She said, 'Isn't this nice? I don't have all that responsibility, and I still have a fun role."
"It's true," agreed Bill Condon, who directed her to an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA Award for "Dreamgirls." To see the Grammy winner triumph in a new medium, Condon took the night off from editing his live-action film, "Beauty and the Beast," starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. "She has a role where all they do is talk about her, then she steps on stage, and she's there! Isn't it amazing how she holds that stage?"
Six-foot-five Kyle Scatliffe, who Broadway-debuted at the barricades as Enjolras in the most recent Les Miz revival, gets to exercise comedic skills as the haplessly henpecked Harpo to Brooks' rampaging Sofia. "In real life, Danielle couldn't be sweeter," he insisted.
Isaiah Johnson comes to the Mister role from a very different place — Far From Heaven. He was Kelly O'Hara's love interest in that Off-Broadway musical. "It launched me back into musical theatre," he said. "My background was in musical theatre, but when I went to grad school at NYU nobody really knew I could sing and so I was just mainly doing plays — shockingly, Shakespeare, which I didn't expect — then Far From Heaven introduced me to the theatre community as a vocalist."
Mister is quite an obstacle for a former romantic lead, but "I like it because it's super-challenging. Every night I have to employ just an incredible amount of focus. You have to be there and embody a true emotional state. Unlike some of the other characters in this musical, I can't come on stage in a neutral place and wait to be affected. I have to come on with a particular emotion that infects everyone.'
His greatest help toward this goal, he said, was the director who helmed the London revival and brought the show over. "John Doyle has guided us into a wonderful, wonderful place where everyone can feel totally free, creating in the moment."
Doyle's specialty is stripping a show down to its basics — an option sometimes dictated by the economics facing him — and, in the case of The Color Purple, he started with the set and designed his own: floor-to-ceiling walls of rustic wood.
"Because I originally did it at the Chocolate Factory where there aren't many resources, I had to create a world where there were the chairs and a simple wall," he explained. "When it came here, I realized I had to make it look bigger. I had to expand that, and I wanted to do something that looked a bit like a Greek play with an epic shape, but still keep the simplicity that I wanted the piece to have. Also, I wanted to do something that was very much actor-based and about the actors, making sure they do everything — move the chairs, do all the work that is called for."
In its current streamlined state, it's "got to be 30-to-40 minutes shorter than it was when it was done here before. All the songs are there, but some big dance breaks and stuff like that are gone. Some of the African sequences are shorter, and there was a lot of internal cutting inside scenes to make it flow more swiftly."
Director Gary Griffin, who directed the original Broadway production in 2005, was in attendance — as a civilian. "It's fun to see a new take. I can just sit back and appreciate on the show," he said.
Ironically, Griffin's next project is a new version of some incredible shrinking Sondheim about the Mizner brothers, Wise Guys / Gold! / Bounce / Road Show. Doyle helmed the final version that officially premiered at The Public in 2008. "Actually," he said, "we did it in Chicago last year, and it went very, very well, so we're taking those ideas and doing it at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, in February."
All of the Color Purple creatives — including Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, who did the score, and Marsha Norman, who did the book — joined the actors at the curtain call. Then, Doyle stepped forward to remind us all why we were there.
"Nothing that we have done would have been at all possible — nothing — were it not for one extraordinary, very special woman who is with us tonight. Please raise the roof for the great Alice Walker." The author, 71, then materialized from the wings.
We did as directed and made it the last and longest applause of the evening.