It's difficult to keep up with the plot. It flies by in a purple haze. We find ourselves yearning for a few more strong production numbers to bring variety to the endless, unvaried rhythm of the denouement. But the musical's creators waste several prime dramatic shaping opportunities. When Jeannette Bayardelle's Celie finally plucks up the courage to tell Ol' Mister what she thinks of him by belting out "I may be poor. I may be black. I may be ugly. But I'm here!" we freeze with expectation. But instead of launching into what could be Celie's answer to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," the music stops dead and the plot trundles on.
If the audience finally did come to life toward the end of the show the night I attended, it was no doubt partly through a sense of relief that the musical was finally over. But we were also genuinely moved. Even the relentlessness of the storytelling couldn't dampen the effect of the tear-jerking climax and heart-warming resolution. I heard laughter and sniffles. I saw a few people around me diving into their handbags for Kleenex. Nearly everyone got up and gave the cast a standing ovation at the end.
If I'd seen The Color Purple on opening night, I think my experience of the musical would have been different, though I doubt it would have been better. If anything, the peppy opening-night crowd would have been a cause of distraction and cynicism. It's a beautiful thing when an audience shows its true colors.