Oprah Winfrey-Produced Musical of Empowerment Arrives at the Ahmanson
by Julie Riggott
Toward the end of The Color Purple: The Musical About Love, actors Felicia P. Fields and Stu James share a duet as Sofia and Harpo. Fields, a full-figured gal, jumps up in James’ arms and wraps her legs around him in a playful scene that has become a definite crowd-pleaser.
“We played around with it to the point where if you can’t figure out what’s going on with them in ‘Any Little Thing,’ then God help you,” Fields said with a laugh.
She kept laughing as she added, “I came up with the jump, and he came up with the pelvic movement. It’s a tribute to Stu’s strength. When you’ve got access to muscles like Stu’s, you need to utilize them. So I keep him in the gym.”
“This song is like the icing on the cake,” James said. “It’s my favorite number in the show.”
Fields, an original cast member who received a 2006 Tony Award nomination, and James, who joined the North American touring production that began seven months ago, help make the musical a rousing and poignant tribute to Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. In the Los Angeles run, they are joined by Jeanette Bayardelle, also from the Broadway production, who plays the main character, Celie.
The show that begins previews at the Ahmanson Theatre Thursday, Dec. 13, and continues through March 9, 2008, has pop culture appeal: LaToya London from “American Idol” plays Nettie, Celie’s sister, and Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child takes on the role of Shug Avery, the sexy blues singer who comes to Harpo’s juke joint.
The touring version of The Color Purple also comes with high expectations: The Broadway show earned 11 Tony nominations, including Best Musical (though it notched just one win), and its score, featuring gospel, jazz, pop and blues influences, was nominated for a Grammy.
The show sets Sofia as a strong-willed and uncompromising woman who has a history of fighting for respect from men and speaking her mind (even when it gets her beaten and thrown in jail). Harpo loves her and, in a brave move for the 1920s, rejects his father’s advice to beat her to keep her in line. Needless to say, the tempestuous couple have their ups and downs.
“Any Little Thing” reveals the dynamics of their relationship and the undeniable attraction that brought them back together after a split: They start off complaining and arguing about all the work they’ve done that day and end up flirting with each other, singing “Now, is there anything else I can do for you? Any little thing you might want me to?”
When Fields jumps up on James and starts swinging her arm in the air like she’s riding a bull, it’s obvious the actors are having a good time.
Fields, who in addition to the Tony nod earned a number of other awards for the part, and James, whose credits include Broadway’s Rent and television’s “General Hospital,” agreed their roles require a lot of passion.
“We break up to make up,” Fields said of the characters. “He loves to be bossed around by her, and she loves to antagonize him because it brings out the juices that flow between the two of them and keeps them spicy.”
The duet also reveals the “hotness and steaminess of love,” said James, who added that his character is attracted to Sofia’s strength and forthrightness, as well as her beauty and sex appeal.
If Sofia and Harpo’s duet is dramatically engaging, Sofia’s “Hell No!” is even more so. When Celie sides with Mister’s assertion that a husband needs to beat his wife, Sofia confronts her and launches into the song, belting out the lines “You told Harpo to beat me?” and “Sick and tired how a woman still live like a slave. Oh, you better learn how to fight back while you still alive!”
“Oh, my god. It’s such an empowering tribute to women,” Fields said. “It really gets the crowd nice and stirred up.”
Fields, who has been involved with the production and director Gary Griffin since the workshop stage in 2003, will always remember the time she sang “Hell No!” in front of Oprah Winfrey, who is a producer of the touring musical.
“When she first came, everybody was so excited, and we were jumping around. Then I realized I am the only person in this room that is doing her part, and I stopped jumping and went ‘Oh, my God!’” she recalled, laughing. “As soon as I sang that first ‘Hell no!,’ she jumped on her feet and started clapping, and I was like, ‘Phew!’”
Just as memorable for Fields, however, are the women who approach her after the show in tears, describing how her performance as Sofia inspires them to be stronger in their own lives. But, she emphasized, the story is not just for women, and it’s not just for African Americans either.
Her co-star agrees. “This is an amazing piece of work that grabs your heartstrings and shows great humanity and love and relationships that can be healed. It shows hope and things can change,” said James who gave up a career as an investment broker to follow his dreams of acting. “Every emotion that humans can feel, the show takes you on that journey.”
Fields, in her characteristic jocularity, added, “If you come to The Color Purpleand you leave without feeling anything, you need to head to the doctor and get your pulse checked. You will feel something when you leave that theater.”
Previews for The Color Purple: The Musical About Love, run Dec. 13 and 14 at 8 p.m., and Dec. 15 at 2 and 8 p.m. It opens Dec. 16 and continues through March 9, 2008, at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 6:30 p.m., with matinees Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.
Contact Julie Riggott at email@example.com.
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