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Seeing some Color Purple at Belk Theater 

With the ballcaps, teddy bears, souvenir programs, and "Hell, No!" T-shirts in the Belk Theater lobby, you could get a very close approximation to the original tourist experience Oprah delivered with The Color Purple when it opened on Broadway late in 2005. The important differences only emerged when the curtain went up.

Belk's stage isn't as deep as the Broadway Theatre's, so the tree where Young Celie and Nettie sing "Huckleberry Pie" isn't as tall or as far upstage. Nor is the touring cast as deep as the Broadway original, so the actresses who portray Young Celie and her sister are the same as those who play the grownups.

By having Celie reconnect with her children in the midst of the Broadway audience, director Gary Griffin contrived to make the family reunion even more powerful than it was on film -- a sorely needed compensation for all that scriptwriter Marsha Norman had to discard from the movie to make the story stageworthy. On tour, all the action is framed by the proscenium. So the touring version felt significantly constricted in its production values. Happily, Oprah was far more generous with the talent on board for her traveling show. Core people were the same as those I saw early in 2006, most notably Brandon Victor Dixon and Felicia P. Fields as Harpo and Sofia (the "Hell, No!" role Oprah originated on film). The soul/gospel quartet of church ladies was three-fourths Broadway lineage.

Thanks to these singing actors -- and Kenita R. Miller as Celie (she held down the role on Broadway before Fantasia took over in 2007) -- the soulful music and the tidy script did nearly everything at the Belk that they did on Broadway. One glaring exception: As Mister, the macho lout who takes Celie off her dear Pa's hands because there's a cow in the deal, Rufus Bonds Jr. suffered from a menace deficit, hardly budging my despicable meter. As the reformed benefactor, Bonds redeemed himself.

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