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Broadway Review: (Fantasia and) The Color Purple

Written by: Ron Bricker

Image CC2K Writer Stephen Ahearn kicks off our Stage section with a second look (for him, at least) of The Color Purple, this time with American Idol's Fantasia in the starring role. Is her casting merely a stunt, or is she FantasTIC? 

Upon my return visit to what we in the Broadway community refers to as "Oprahoma", and as others refer to as The Color Purple, I was pleasantly surprised to see it has upheld after almost 2 years on the Great White Way.

Rumors were spreading around Broadway the first of the year that the Season 3 winner of American Idol Fantasia would be joining the cast as the pivotal role of Celie. The role was originated by LaChanze who won the 2006 Best Actress In A Musical for her performance. Could Fantasia sing it 8 times a week? Could her lack of acting experience ruin her performance? Could she hold her own against the brutal and cynical NYC theatre crowd and critics? Could she step on stage for the first time and conquer Broadway?  Many celebrities come into Broadway shows to help boost ticket sales, and end up lackluster to downright horrible.  Well, I'm happy to say that Fantasia breaks the "celebrity" mold!!  She is a breath of fresh air for the Broadway community and the show. It reminds me of when Reba McIntyre went into Annie Get Your Gun a few seasons back. Even though they are "names" to bring in tickets, both Reba and now Fantasia really did deliver!!

When Fantasia began in April, word spread quickly and effusively, in a way that only theater people can provide. "She was incredible!" "She was fantastic!" "She was born to play the role!" Even though I had already seen the show (and rarely if ever pay to see things more than once), the praise became too deafening, and like thousands of others, I found myself once again in the house to watch Fantasia. And believe me, I'm as surprised as anyone at how much I liked it, and her. If you've never seen the show, I'd recommend it anyway. But even if you have seen it already,  see it again with Ms. Barrino. Her soulful, gravely voice blends extremely well with Russell, Willis, and Bray's score. Her voice is a little rough around the edges, but has the deep emotional power that cuts to the heart of the song. Hearing her tackle "And I'm Here" in the second act brought the house down. Have a listen:

Her acting ran the gamut from very amateur in some scenes to nailing it in others. She is clearly untrained as an actress, but her instinct for the stage is undeniable . She is a true performer and is having a fantastic start to her professional acting career if she chooses to go in that direction. She wasn't "phoning in" her performance and truly gave 110% every second she was on stage.

Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, who originated the role of Shug Avery, is still with the show. Her performance is still top-notch and has gotten richer and deeper. The characters of Mister, Sophia, Harpo, and Nettie are now portrayed by new performers. Most are very good except for NaTasha Yvette Williams who plays Sophia, and Chaz Lamar Shephard who plays Harpo. The Originals were fantastic and had great chemistry earning them both Tony nominations. NaTasha doesn't land nearly as many laughs as Felicia P. Fields did, and Chaz Lamar looks lost and seems very inexperienced in his acting. He doesn't have that sparkle that Brandon Victor Dixon had as Harpo.  If you are seeing it for the first time you will love them.  If you have seen it before, you will definitely miss Ms. Fields and Mr. Dixon.

When all is said and done, I left the theatre completely satisfied. When Fantasia sings "And I'm Here", and the rousing reprise of title song “The Color Purple” is performed, the problems with Marsha Norman's book and some of the forgettable songs are quickly forgotten. This show is bringing an audience that normally doesn't go to the theatre and introduces them to a powerful story and performances that will be talked about for years to come. Fans of the movie will see the characters they fell in love with over 20 years ago being brought to life on stage. The musical, believe it or not, is a better representation of the book The Color Purple by Alice Walker then the movie directed by Stephen Spielberg.

It was announced on 7/12/07 that Fantasia has now extended her contract in the show until January, 6, 2008. So you still have time.