Let's Get Musical: The Color Purple lives large while Pippin charts a more modest course

Amid the joyful noise that imbues The Color Purple, the stage adaptation of Alice Walker's indelible 1982 novel, characters write, talk and sing to God. They both praise and blaspheme God. By evening's end this account of two African American sisters living disparate lives in the first half of the twentieth century is as close to a musical prayer as a Broadway-styled musical is going to get.

The operative phrase here is "Broadway-styled." The Color Purple, which is currently on view at the Fox, is a likable, at times even stirring, show. But there's a nagging sense that its ambition to capture the essence of a poignant novel was compromised by its need to satisfy the expectations of theatergoing tourists, who expect flash for their dollar. Scenically, for instance, the show is top-heavy. Sets fly in and out; they roll on and off. All to little purpose other than to wow the viewer. The scenery does not evoke the simple world of rural Georgia, where most of Walker's story occurs. So where does this Color Purple play out? In hi-tech Broadway-Land.

Viewer expectation also seems to have influenced some of the staging. The first loud production number, a Bible-thumping, tear-down-the-church-rafters gospel shout called "Mysterious Ways," is the essence of predictability. It might be terrific in Purlie, but here it only succeeds in slowing the forward momentum. So too, a few minutes later, does the swarthy "Big Dog," which is loudly sung by several field hands who are not germane to this story. But "Big Dog" is the sort of in-your-face number that people seem to expect in top-dollar musicals.

Yet despite these and other ancillary moments, The Color Purple remains a congenial entertainment, effective in its feel-good ambitions. With so much professionalism on display, it's easy to see why the original Broadway production was nominated for eleven Tony Awards. But it's also easy to see why it received only one of those eleven Tonys. The same is true of Steven Spielberg's roseate 1985 film version, which garnered eleven Academy Award nominations and won none. Apparently the spine of Walker's story is like mercury: It eludes those who would capture it.

Primarily that story introduces us to Celie, an essentially illiterate teen who lives as the virtual slave of her "lowdown dog" of a husband (acted with authority by Rufus Bonds Jr.). After she is separated from her beloved sister Nettie, Celie's only solace is to write letters to God that ask eternal questions about her submissive life. But as the decades pass, she tires of waiting for answers that do not come. Celie instead finds a sense of worth in her own body, especially in her own hands, and even is persuaded to believe that she is "a wonder to behold."

Walker's novel is suffused with music. Songwriters Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray have composed an eclectic score comprising blues, pop, soul, jazz and gospel. Here, a howl that might have been written for Mahalia Jackson; next, some toe-tapping bebop worthy of Dizzy Gillespie. In between all this music, Marsha Norman, who wrote the book, had the daunting task of distilling an incident-crammed novel down to its essence. Norman's sensitive libretto cuts to the marrow of the action and offers precise cameos of these engaging characters.

It would be nigh impossible, for instance, not to be endeared to the headstrong Sofia, who marries and then deserts one of Celie's stepsons. "Life don't stop just because you leave home," Sofia reminds us. As portrayed with gusto and delicious attitude by Felicia P. Fields (who created this role on Broadway), Sofia gifts the story with much of its humor and some of its pathos. Then there is the willowy Shug Avery, a sensuous lounge singer whose scandalous reputation precedes her. Even before she comes to town, Shug is a lightning rod for adulation and scorn. The luminous Angela Robinson shows us why both attitudes are warranted.

It's Celie herself who might give a viewer pause. Because the novel is written as a series of letters, on the page we are always inside Celie's head. But how do you dramatize a painfully shy, tongue-tied woman who "can't fix my mouth to say how I feel"? Every time Jeannette Bayardelle wants to exploit her naiveté, she rolls her eyes saucer-wide and flashes her pearly white teeth. Such caricaturing elicits laughs, but in a condescending manner, making Celie the least empathetic character onstage.

When, by evening's end loose plot strands begin to get hurriedly tied up with one eye on the clock, it's easy to recall all those overproduced moments early on that ate up time in order to make the show look conventional. But conventional is the one thing that Alice Walker's novel is not.

In pronounced contrast to The Color Purple, Stray Dog Theatre is mounting a modest production of Pippin that is all the more charming for its simplicity. When it opened on Broadway in 1972, Pippin was grossly overstaged. Director-choreographer Bob Fosse took Stephen Schwartz's Vietnam War-era parable (written when Schwartz was a college student) and glopped it up until the original source material was almost unrecognizable.

Although Schwartz has since stated that he was in despair over that (admittedly wildly successful) production, he would find much to admire in this version directed by Gary F. Bell. The effective scenic design by Jay V. Hall is little more than scaffolding; the "orchestra" is restricted to one piano. A kind of purity permeates the evening. This is a Pippin more beholden to the ethereal airiness of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's Fantasticks or even their Celebration than to Fosse's smothering razzle-dazzle.

Although set in France during the Holy Roman Empire, the story's analogy to the sybaritic 1960s was immediate. Pippin, son of the presumably bloodthirsty Charlemagne, is the "prince of despair," in search of meaning and fulfillment (especially sexual). If in 1972 Pippin was seen as the first hippie, 36 years later there are new nuances at hand. The strained relationship between father and son — one a king, the other waiting to ascend to the throne — casts out ripples of Bush père and fils that are here for any viewers who care to see them. But mostly what we see is a young kid flexing his muscles. No, not Pippin — Stephen Schwartz, who buoys the evening with a trunkful of sassy, ebullient melodies.

The show's principal performer is the "Leading Player," a nebulous narrator cum master of ceremonies. Although this role made a Broadway star of Ben Vereen, I always felt that his showy performance was mostly about Ben Vereen. But Jeffrey D. Pruett's menacing interlocutor is a mesmerizing, at times satanic, creation. From the moment he first slithers onstage singing "Magic to Do," Pruett turns us all into willing voyeurs. His slick professionalism is equaled by Jeffrey M. Wright in the title role. Pippin can be a colorless lad, but not so here. We enjoy being in his presence. The evening is at its merriest when these two are controlling the stage, as they do in the vaudeville-like "On the Right Track." A third standout performance is delivered by a radiant Julie Venegoni, who invigorates Act Two as Pippin's romantic interest.

Alas, much of the good work here is marred — perhaps not fatally (depending on how tolerant you are) — by one miscast role. But the underlying premise of the production — a reliance on simplicity to reveal the heart of the story — works well. Some years down the road, future stagings of The Color Purple likely will find their way to this same approach. When that occurs we will again be reminded, as we are with this Pippin, of the obvious yet sage maxim that less is more.