June 23, 2007

How Fantasia Deepens "The Color Purple"

Shortly after the country star Reba McEntire completely reinvigorated Annie Get Your Gun back in 2001, the Tony committee considered creating an award for replacements. They ended up not doing it. But if they had, Fantasia, the third season winner on TV’s "American Idol," would surely have won this year's for her knockout performance in The Color Purple. I knew she was good even before the critics started throwing roses at her because my husband K plays in the orchestra and came home impressed with the way she handled the musical numbers, or to say it as he did, "The girl can sing." She can also sell tickets. As the New York Post's Michael Riedel wrote this week (click here to read his article), the show has been pulling in about $1 million a week since Fantasia took over as its star and now has advance sales of almost $10 million.

I finally got around to seeing Fantasia myself this past week. It's been a long time since I've been in an audience so excited to be seeing a show. People actually dressed up as though it were a special occasion; I haven't seen this many men wearing ties since my friend Joy's black-tie wedding three summers ago. The audience was about 85% black, including two rows of elderly church ladies, resplendent in their bright Sunday hats and thankfully seated at the back so that no one had to look over them.
I hadn't seen The Color Purple since its opening night in 2005. In many ways, it's better now. K says they continued to work on it after the opening and the storytelling seems smoother. I do miss some members of the original cast, particularly the three actors who played the church ladies who make up the show's Greek chorus; the new trio isn't quite as funny. But Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, who plays the sultry singer Shug Avery, is still there and still terrific, albeit a bit raunchier. And Alton Fitzgerald White makes a more nuanced Mister, the semi-villain of the show. But it's Fantasia who has transformed and, yes, deepened The Color Purple.

Fantasia doesn't have anywhere near the acting range that the Tony-winning LaChanze (the show seems to favor one-named leading ladies) had but what Fantasia has perfectly suits the role of Celie, the downtrodden black woman who has to endure a lifetime of rapes, beatings, overwork and, famously, being called ugly before she learns to stand up for and love herself. As she recounts in her memoir, "Life Is Not a Fairy Tale," Fantasia, who turns 23 on June 30, was also a rape victim, dropped out of high school and became an unwed mother at 17. An accomplished method actor couldn't have put those experiences to better use than she does. And all of it comes bursting out in Celie’s final aria, "I'm Here" (click here to see the version Fantasia performed on the Tonys). The white couple sitting next to me had seemed a little restless during the first act and I thought the husband, a guy who looked as though a Rangers' game would be more his natural habitat, might bolt during intermission. But at the end of that song, he sprang out of his seat to lead the standing ovation. I teared up too.

Before the show and during the intermission, the ushers walked the aisles cautioning people that photographs were not permitted but at the curtain call a blaze of flashes greeted Fantasia. She grinned, looking happy and genuinely grateful. She blew kisses up to the cheering folks in the cheap seats, where just a few years ago she might have been sitting. I walked around to the stage door to meet K. “So, what did you think?” he asked. “You’re right,” I told him. “The girl can sing.”


Anonymous said...

Interesting review but yours seems to be way off from the countless professional New York Theatre critics where her acting is mainly praised, you mainly praise her singing and not a one of them say's anything about her acting being "no where near that of Lachanze" in fact they say the opposite. Most of the role of Celie is acting, not singing, in fact many wanted fantasia to get to "sing" more, so perhaps that's why the critics praised her acting more because that's what she does most and best of in TCP.

Here's a snip of the many rave reviews from a theatre critic.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, you're absolutely right that there's not a lot of singing to Celie's part. And right again that the critics praised, or as I say, threw roses at, Fantasia's performance. But for me, she didn't so much act as relive the experiences of her own life which dovetailed the character's. I know that's what many good actors do but they also do more. LaChanze created a similarly affecting performance in a role that was far removed from her own life but I'm not sure that Fantasia could play someone so different from herself. I'd be happy to be proved wrong though.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Jan - The Tony committee actually did create a category for Best Replacement in time for last year's awards, but then failed to nominate anyone. Most thought either Harvey Fierstein in Fiddler On The Roof or Jonathan Pryce in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels would be presumptive nominees.

It was only after failing to nominate that they reversed themselves and did away with the replacement honor.

Anonymous said...

I had actually never heard of Fantasia so it was great to see her at the Tony's. And again, as a result of your blog.

Osondu Nnamdi Awaraka said...
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jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks for checking out Broadway & Me, Osondu. I hope you will continue to read and to leave more comments when the feeling hits you.