One of the things I like most about writing about theater for a weekly publication is that I have the luxury of avoiding press nights. Unlike my hardworking colleagues on the dailies who are forced to churn out copy overnight for the next day's newsstands, I can generally see a show on any evening near the start of the run and mull it over for a while before committing my thoughts to paper. The best part about this is that I get to sit in a real audience. It might not sound like a big deal, but in the tight-knit local theater community, spending a few hours in the company of anyone who isn't on first-name terms with the director, producer, or members of the cast can feel like quite a novelty. Instead of gushing groupies, theater insiders, and fellow journalists, I'm surrounded by actual paying customers — many of whom decided to buy a ticket to see the show simply because they thought it sounded interesting.

Avoiding the hype of opening nights can be helpful from a critical perspective, even if it means forfeiting the free champagne and canapés that usually round out a show's first official performance — a decision a starving critic can ill afford to make. The actors' friends and family have largely come and gone, so the audience's reactions to the performance tend to be more honest. The production has sweated off that prickly sense of overinflated expectation that all too frequently accompanies press night. In short, the show has had time to settle down and find its rhythm, which in turn should make my response to it in writing a little more accurate.

The sensation of being part of a real audience was palpable the other evening at The Color Purple, the touring production of the Broadway musical which opened at the Orpheum Theatre three weeks ago under the auspices of producer Shorenstein Hays Nederlander. Barring a sign-language-assisted matinee performance of Altar Boyz I witnessed earlier this year while reporting a feature article, I've only experienced SHN's splashy Broadway-style efforts on opening nights. But owing to scheduling issues, I ended up at The Color Purple two weeks into its run. As at Altar Boyz, the house felt entirely divorced from the boisterous whoop typical of a SHN opening night, only the audience this time around wasn't deaf. But for the first hour and twenty minutes or so it might as well have been, for the crowd made hardly a sound. Had this gut-wrenching story about the trials of a downtrodden black woman in rural Georgia shocked us into muteness? Had we been chastened by distress? I think not. As far as I could tell, we were simply bewildered into silence.

Showgal Shug Avery (Michelle Williams, right) gives Celie (Jeannette Bayardelle) some love.
Paul Kolnik
Showgal Shug Avery (Michelle Williams, right) gives Celie (Jeannette Bayardelle) some love.

Details

Book by Alice Walker, adapted by Marsha Norman. Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray.

Through Dec. 9 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market (at Grove), S.F. Tickets are $35-99; call 551-2000 or visit www.shnsf.com.

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To say that the house was cold that night is to put it mildly. For most of the first half of the musical, I felt as if I were sitting in a doctor's waiting room rather than experiencing a Broadway show. Even the ecstatic energy of the gospel number "Mysterious Ways" and the striding, Stevie Wonder–like disco rhythms of "Big Dog" (featuring a strapping, largely bare-chested male chorus) elicited little more than polite claps from the audience. This was unexpected. Both Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize–winning epistolary novel and Steven Spielberg's multiple-Oscar-nominated film adaptation had turned my insides to pitch with their unflinching depiction of the seemingly endless misfortunes that befall heroine Celie from sexual abuse to slavery.

Only a couple of the songs in the first half — the plucky war cry "Hell No!" and the steamy R&B number "Push da Button" — seemed to pull the audience momentarily out of its lethargy. As Sofia, a woman who impresses the browbeaten Celie by standing up for herself, Felicia P. Fields (who played the role on Broadway) is a formidable presence. The audience cannot help but respond to her sweetness and strength as she swaggers about the stage bullying her husband, Harpo, into submission while turning him on with a sultry swish of her massive hips. "Hell No!" is Sofia's torch song and she sings it as if she's Henry V about to take on the French at the Battle of Agincourt. That number managed to provoke a few cheers the night I attended the show. Audience members similarly sat up during the steamy cabaret number "Push da Button," thanks to its sexually provocative lyrics huskily intoned by Michelle Williams' Shug Avery and the gyrating choreography.

It takes both the actors and the audience to make a performance work. The consummate cast did what it could to reach us. The passionate performers acted, danced, and sang as though Celie's story were God's own gospel. So why couldn't we keep our end of the bargain for much of the show? The reasons, I think, stem from the baffling and exhausting handling of the narrative and numerous wasted opportunities for drama.

Spanning several decades, The Color Purple's storyline is extremely action-packed. Events unfold at a dizzying pace. In attempting to cram Walker's novel into two hours and forty minutes of stage action, writer Marsha Norman throws a hectic series of plot points at us like a pitcher on speed. One moment we're watching Celie and her sister Nettie as young girls. The next, Celie is pregnant. Then she's forced to marry the evil Ol' Mister. Next she's separated from Nettie. Then Ol' Mister's sexy mistress arrives in town. We barely have time to orient ourselves in Celie's misery when we're suddenly thrown into a full-blown African tribal dance scene complete with stomping natives waving banana leaves. "Huh?" we think, before realizing that we're watching Celie's fantasy about her sister's life as a missionary in Africa.

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.

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