There’s a scene in one of my favorite episodes of Sports Night in which workaholic Dana (played brilliantly by Felicity Huffman) returns to the office completely overwhelmed after seeing a Broadway performance of “The Lion King.” She’d never really seen a musical before, and she tells anyone who will listen about how it was a transformative experience, how the lights went down, the music started and before she knew it, she was crying. “I didn’t know we could do that,” she says.
It’s such a simple statement, but to me, that’s exactly what a good theater production is all about, causing us to respond emotionally in unexpected ways. Something about the combination of this group of live performers signing, dancing and telling a story that’s unfolding right in front of you makes musicals pack a hefty punch that can’t really be matched in any other entertainment medium. I’ve seen my share of good and bad musicals, but when it comes to the most emotionally affecting, The Color Purple definitely takes the cake. The production opened Jan. 12 at the Bass Concert Hall at the University of Texas Performing Arts Center and runs through Jan. 17.
Coming into the show, I hadn’t read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book or seen the Steven Spielberg-directed movie, so I really had no expectations or idea of what the story was about. I knew that Oprah was involved somehow, but that was about it. The musical opens in 1909 with Celie and her sister Nettie as young teenagers. At 14, Celie is already pregnant for the second time with her father’s child. Sadly, things only get worse for her for much of the first act, but over the course of the story, Celie gradually builds a community around her of people who genuinely love her and also learns to believe in herself. I don’t want to say too much else so as not to give away the beautiful arc of the story.
As a musical, The Color Purple blends gospel and blues to heart-wrenching effect and foot-tapping perfection. The production benefits from having a cast composed largely of veterans from the Broadway run, and their performances elevate the material even further.
Tickets to the show start at $20, and student rush tickets are available for half-off from the box office on the day of the performance.