DIVA TALK: Chatting with Color Purple’s Felicia P. Fields Plus Gravitte’s “Defying Gravity”

By Andrew Gans
January 20, 2006

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.



FELICIA P. FIELDS

It certainly does seem to be the season for noteworthy Broadway debuts. Several cast members in Sweeney Todd, Jersey Boys and The Color Purple are currently making their Main Stem bows, including Felicia P. Fields, whose powerful performance as the feisty Sofia in The Color Purple has brought this Chicago native a string of accolades from the New York critics. Fields gets the chance to strut her stuff in not one, but two showstoppers in the new musical at the Broadway Theatre: the defiant “Hell No!” in the first act and the spirit-lifting duet with Brandon Victor Dixon, “Any Little Thing,” in the second. Fields — whose Chicago credits include roles in The Hot Mikado, Show Boat, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Dreamgirls and Hello, Dolly! — told me earlier this week that Broadway was never a goal, although when the opportunity came to bring her portrayal of Sofia to New York audiences, it was one she could not refuse. My chat with the talented actress follows.

Q: How does performing on Broadway differ from working in Chicago theatre?
Fields: Of course, it’s much more high profile. People are much more theatre savvy. It’s a place where people come from all over the country, and they are dedicated to seeing theatre, which has a different energy if you are a theatre person. It’s very exciting to see that people are so excited about coming to the theatre.

Q: Does that excitement give you more energy as a performer?
Fields: What really gives me more energy is the response afterwards. Especially in this particular production, you get an opportunity to see — when you’re on [stage] at the end of the night — something that I’ve never experienced before, and that’s the gratitude of the journey that you’ve made. I think it’s one of my favorite parts of the evening — when people respond the way they do at the end of the night. It’s such a gratifying feeling to know that your journey has touched so many people. I don’t think normally you get a chance to really experience it the way that we do at the end of the night.

Q: At the curtain call?
Fields: Yes, because we’re singing at the end. We’ve broken the fourth wall and are then ourselves — kind of embracing the audience, and the audience is embracing and singing along with us.

Q: How did the role of Sofia come about for you?
Fields: I’ve been involved from the beginning. I’ve known [director] Gary Griffin in Chicago for some time, and he has been a tour de force with me. [Laughs.] He really has had great movement with my career, where at home I started off doing much more musical theatre and traditional casting. And, he is a person that is such a visionary that he doesn’t really see color, and he takes chances. So, I’ve done things like Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! for him and all of these characters who would traditionally be Caucasian characters. Even in South Pacific I did Bloody Mary, so he has really done things to help open up the possibilities for me in theatre and given me an opportunity to prepare for this particular moment in time. He’s not afraid to tell me, “You suck!” [laughs] or to tell me that I’m really good at something, which is a great thing to have in a director.

We were doing Carousel, and I was playing Nettie Fowler and I was in my costume for tech [rehearsal], and when I came down the aisle, I reminded myself of looking like Oprah [Winfrey] in “The Color Purple,” and I literally hobbled down the aisle and said, “You told Harpo to beat me,” and he said, “Well, if I ever do the musical of The Color Purple, I already have my Sofia.” And not long after that he called and said, “You’re not going to believe this, but I’ve been commissioned to direct The Color Purple.” And that’s how I got the job!

Q: How has the role changed since that first workshop?
Fields: Actually, the role has not changed much. That’s been a pretty solidly written character. The music has cut down for me quite a bit because I started off doing a lot more singing and then wound up doing much more acting. I’ve been through several Harpos, and in that regard, my Harpo is fantastic now. It’s such a wonderful chemistry between us on and offstage. I don’t know what I’d do without Brandon [Victor Dixon]. Between Brandon and Krisha [Marcano], the Squeak, we have such a good trio, and we are very endearing to each other even offstage. But to have gone through the Harpos that I’ve gone through and not have any chemistry. And [Brandon’s] not bad to look at either! [Laughs.] Even though there’s an age difference. He’s a very, very warm Harpo. Even at curtain call, we play with each other because we really have a good connection.

Q: Were you a fan of the novel or the film of “The Color Purple” before you came on board?
Fields: The film — I had seen the film and didn’t do the book until after I got the job. I’m so much more of a film and television buff. I had seen it and enjoyed it but never thought it would be a musical. I get a lot of comments from men who are offended by the way African-American men are portrayed in this piece. But, certainly, it is a piece with realistic characters. My response is usually, “If the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t put it on.” But, obviously, these were the experiences of Alice Walker, and people who write, they write from experiences. . . . This was a real group of people for her, and you can’t be upset about that or you shouldn’t be — that a person is writing from their own experiences. . . . We know this happens, but it doesn’t just happen with African-Americans. This is a universal story. It talks about abuse, it talks about lesbianism. These things are things that are not black or white or specific to a race. These things happen to women, they happen to people, and you write about these things and you try to make it as real as possible.

Q: Sofia has quite a difficult journey through the show but comes out the other side okay. What do you think is the turning point for her that makes her able to come through what she’s suffered?
Fields: Of course, the dinner scene is pivotal. I think what happens is, she sits at the table and she experiences what Celie [LaChanze] does when she starts standing up to Mister [Kingsley Leggs]. And in my head [there is the] resound of “Hell No!” Even with everything I’ve been through, I come away from this journey after being beaten and put in jail, and find out that all of that was not in vain because [of] Celie. Something has happened in the time that has passed that has sparked her to get some guts. I feel good about that. I can eat now. The journey has not been in vain. Sofia has done something, and I’m back!

Q: One of your producers is quite a high-profile producer. When did you learn that Oprah Winfrey was going to be involved with the show?
Fields: It was toward the end of the last workshop, and I’m sure that [the other producers] had known much [earlier than] us. Gayle had been there pretty much all along, and Quincy Jones had come aboard. And then when Gayle kind of nudged her into it, [Oprah] made her appearance, which was fantastic because we were liked Mexican jumping beans that day. All of us were tired and sitting around, and then [Oprah] ducked down and pushed through the doors. She loves to do that whole little surprise thing. And I think everybody was just wowed! What else can you say?

Q: What’s her presence like in a room?
Fields: Oh my God, it’s like an ignited energy. It’s unbelievable. She’s larger than life. I watch her every day [on television]. One day you’re watching her on television and never dreaming she would be your boss. [Laughs.] My mouth was open for like 20 minutes. I am just so impressed with the nature of her giving. It’s a lovely thing to be present with her. She’s been very kind and very encouraging to me.

Q: Did she have any advice for you?
Fields: Usually producers don’t give you advice. They channel it through the director because they have to agree on what the change would be before they pass it on to you. You can’t take direction from a lot of people. I only take direction from Gary Griffin. And so they talked to Gary, and I’m sure there were things that were said — I just don’t know which things were hers. [Laughs.] We all have gotten our share of changes and notes.

Q: When Oprah came on board, did that raise the stakes for you, knowing that you’re playing the role she played on film?
Fields: I was jumping around in the room at first, and then I went, “What the hell am I so excited for? I’m the only in here that’s doing her role!” [Laughs.] But she was so cool that when we started doing the run, I sang “Hell No!,” and the first time I said, “hell no,” she jumped to her feet and said, “Yes!” And I was in my head going, “Oh my God, oh my God, Oprah Winfrey just jumped up on my song.” [Laughs.]

Q: How involved is she at this point?
Fields: She’s in and out. We had that big huge opening, and she came back the next day to see the show. That was really cool because she came on the stage and she talked to all of us and told us how much she appreciated our work. And she knew that yesterday was a big, big deal and all the celebrities were there, but she was there again today because she wanted to see it again without all the fanfare. I thought that was great. She gave us all a sense of commitment to the show. After the opening day, it becomes a real job, and she was there to support our next level going into this production.

Q: Going back to your role, you have that great second act number, “Any Little Thing.” Is that as much fun to perform as it is to watch?
Fields: It’s the most fun because we never know what’s going to happen during that scene! [Laughs.] I’m kind of following Brandon’s lead. Every day is different — he is just a cut-up. I don’t know going into that scene what’s going to happen except for the beginning. Once we get off the porch, who knows what’s going to happen?

Q: It’s a nice surprise because you don’t expect that kind of song at that point in the show.
Fields: I’m a big girl, and when Brandon lifts me, that gives other big girls hope! [Laughs.] It’s one of my favorite things in the show. It’s hard in that particular place [in the show] because we’re coming to the end of the journey [and] so many things have happened and you begin to get a little physically tired. And that song has that little “ping” in it for me vocally that takes the notes up higher. My voice is much more contralto. . . . My second act is about changing clothes. Once I get to that song I know that it’s my last hard drive right there, and the second thing is that it’s going to be fun once we get to a certain point. It’s an encouraging little scene.

Q: How difficult is it performing eight shows a week?
Fields: Eight shows a week is rough. What happens is you don’t really have a life outside of that because you have to protect your vocal chords and your energy. . . . When you’re beginning to set your work, you have to make sure you set it at a place where you can maintain it even on a day when you’re not feeling well. . . . Certainly you can do things in a higher range, but you have to set it at a place where you can be consistent.

Q: Are you getting a chance to enjoy New York at all since you’ve been here?
Fields: I’m still looking for a place to live! I haven’t been able to enjoy New York yet, and I really miss home. It’s hard to be away from home. I have a house there, and my daughter’s 15. Everything happened so quickly that I didn’t get the opportunity — even if I wanted to bring her here, I couldn’t have, it just wasn’t enough time. My son is older, so he’s pretty much holding down the fort at home, and my sister and my mother are all helping out.

Q: How long do you think you’ll stay with the show?
Fields: I don’t know. It depends on how long they want me [laughs] and if I can find a place to live. That’ll make it feel like it’s home.

[The Color Purple plays the Broadway Theatre, Broadway at 53rd Street. Call (212) 239-6200 for tickets or visit www.telecharge.com.]

FOR THE RECORD: Debbie Gravitte’s “Defying Gravity”

On her third solo recording, and her first for the Jay Records label, Debbie Gravitte performs songs from seven of the eight musicals she has appeared in on The Great White Way, including “Mr. Monotony” from Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, which won the singing actress a 1989 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Gravitte also performs seven additional theatre tunes, including the first symphonic recording of Stephen Schwartz’s “Defying Gravity” from the hit musical Wicked.

Gravitte, who possesses a full, lush and rangy Broadway belt, often sounds similar to some of the great gal singers of days gone by — including Eydie Gorme and the late Dolores Gray — but with a contemporary twist. Highlights of the 15-track recording, which features the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Craig Bana, include the aforementioned “Gravity” and “Monotony” as well as a passionate “Time Heals Everything”; Mame’s “If He Walked Into My Life Today,” which builds to an exciting climax; a zesty version of the Gypsy classic “Some People”; a surprisingly enjoyable rendition of the much-performed Cats anthem, “Memory”; a thrilling take on “Don’t Rain On My Parade”; and a quiet, jazz-inflected rendition of Zorba’s “Only Love.”

Gravitte also acknowledges her name-changing years: the singers listed for the three-part harmonies on Rodgers and Hart’s delightful “Sing for Your Supper” include Debbie Shapiro, Debbie Shapiro Gravitte and Debbie Gravitte.

DIVA TIDBITS

Natalie Joy Johnson, best known for her performance in Bare: A Pop Opera, will make her solo cabaret debut Feb. 1 at 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. Featuring direction by Ben Rimalower and musical direction by Jonah Speidel, Johnson will perform such songs as “Moondance,” “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” “Ribbons Down My Back,” “I Had Myself a True Love,” “Smooth Criminal” and “The Voice Within” as well as “A Quiet Night at Home,” which was penned by Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere Jr. About her upcoming show, Johnson recently told me, “I am so excited to be doing my own show and particularly thrilled to be doing it at Joe's Pub. Working with Ben and Jonah is a dream come true — they both totally get me! And, Jonah is simply a musical genius. I can't wait for you to hear the arrangements we've come up with!" Joe’s Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Avenue. Tickets, priced at $25, are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.joespub.com.

More from Julia Murney about her debut solo recording, “I’m Not Waiting,” which will be released by Sh-K-Boom Records this spring: “It's a real hodge podge of songs — the whole song list isn't set yet, but there will be something cut from Wild Party as well as a song that Andrew Lippa wrote for me, an original song by Tom Kitt, and then a random assortment ranging from Reba McEntire and John Lennon to Annie Lennox and U2. We actually [just] finished doing all the vocal stuff . . . and it was really fun — mostly because of everyone who was working with me these past few weeks . . . . I even got some of my crazy talented friends to come in and sing a little back up stuff for me, so it made me very happy.” Among those who will be heard singing back-up are former Lennon co-stars Mandy Gonzalez, Marcy Harriell, Julie Danao-Salkin and Michael Potts as well as Murney's former Ragtime castmates Michael James Scott and Montego Glover. Song titles include “When I First Met Him,” the cut Wild Party tune; Tom Kitt’s “Perfect”; and Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” “I’m Not Waiting” is being produced by Andrew Lippa. Joel Moss is the disc’s engineer with assistance by Jan Folkson. Tom Kitt and Stephen Oremus are the music directors.

The 22nd Annual Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event (S.T.A.G.E.), which benefits AIDS Project Los Angeles, will salute the works of Betty Comden and the late Adolph Green. Entitled Do Re Mi — Comden & Green’s Broadway, the March 10-12 concerts will be held at Cal State University Los Angeles’ Luckman Fine Arts Complex. David Galligan will direct with musical direction and arrangements by Gerald Sternbach. Show times are March 10 and 11 at 8 PM and March 12 at 3 PM. Those currently scheduled to take part in the annual event include Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins, veteran stage and screen legend Betty Garrett, recent Hairspray star Bruce Vilanch and cabaret favorites Wesla Whitfield and Karen Mason as well as Neile Adams, Adam Lambert, Ian Abercrombie, Clay Adkins, Paul Ainsley, Jamie Anderson, Mary Jo Catlett, Carole Cook, Cristalee, Nancy Dussault, Bill Hutton, Lorenzo Lamas, Rod McKuen, Linda Michele, Ann Morrison, Christine Pedi, Valarie Pettiford, Joan Ryan, Mark W. Smith, Sally Struthers, Ruth Williamson and JoAnne Worley. For ticket information call (323) 656-9069 or visit www.stagela.com.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.