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Theater review: 'The Color Purple' with Fantasia at the Pantages

February 12, 2010 |  3:30 pm

Fantasia There's a Sunday morning sort of feeling at the Pantages Theatre these days as "The Color Purple" visits town with "American Idol" winner Fantasia Barrino in the central role.

The reports about her Broadway appearance in the musical in 2007-08, toward the end of its run, are all true. Performer and character disappear into each other, emerging as something achingly real yet bigger, more wondrous than life. Her rise through the third season of "Idol" might have signaled that she is a singer of rare talent, but it is as Celie, a woman slowly awakening to her inner magnificence, that she explodes like a supernova.

This is not to say that Fantasia, who is widely known by just her first name, makes a showy star turn. Quite the opposite: She extends her gift humbly, like an offering placed lovingly into the devotional basket at a Sunday service.

Such subtlety is unfortunately hard to find elsewhere in a touring cast that has taken to milking every laugh and every gospel-flavored note for all it is worth. Troublesome too are the muddy acoustics that, on the main floor at Thursday's press performance, swallowed so many of the words in Marsha Norman's adaptation of Alice Walker's novel, with music and lyrics by pop writers Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.

Too bad, because "Purple" -- although far from perfect (especially in the second act, as the action bogs down in the sheer volume of plot) -- buzzes with an irresistible life force. Still more miraculous, it's a crowd-pleaser that, in a time of bellicose debate, simply and naturally depicts a sustained, nurturing same-sex relationship within a larger story about lives guided by the love and wisdom of a higher power. Go ahead and try not to cry at the ends of either of the show's two acts. Just try.

Especially with Fantasia on hand. She undergoes a subtle but riveting transformation as Celie -- who's been so violently mistreated -- learns that she's not powerless, after all. Her voice, which in the beginning is small, pinched and bruised, grows gradually big, resonant and joyous. Her body, closed in on itself, slowly unfolds, and her face, on which terror and trust commingle, becomes radiant. This is a performance to be witnessed now, while it's still available (except on Sunday afternoons, when Fantasia is off the schedule).

Much has been made of reports that, before her casting, Fantasia had never so much as seen a Broadway musical. And of her difficulty, post-performance, of separating herself from the role. Whatever power is at work here, it's enough to confirm your belief in the divine.

-- Daryl H. Miller

Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Fantasia is not scheduled to perform Sunday matinees.) Ends Feb. 28. $25 to $85. (323) 468-1770 or www.broadwayla.org. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

Above: Fantasia Barrino as Celie in "The Color Purple." Photo credit: Paul Kolnik

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