THE COLOR PURPLE’S CARLA R. STEWART STEPS INTO SOME BIG SHOES, BUT SAYS SHE’LL PUT HER OWN FOOTPRINT ON THE SEXY THAT IS SHUG AVERY.
“The Color Purple” runs Oct. 24-29 at the Fox Theatre. Details, tickets HERE.
JENNIFER HUDSON, Heather Headley, Jennifer Holliday.
One after another, those dynamos played the supporting role of sultry singer Shug (pronounced like “sugar”) Avery in the recent Broadway revival of The Color Purple.
“Yeah, I think I’m brave,” says Stewart. “Life has only shown me that I just gotta get in the ring and fight. If you come to New York to try to make it, that alone is ballsy. Then it’s also pretty easy to get stifled by other people’s talent and then not get in that ring because you’re intimidated.”
“Everybody loves Shug,” you’ll hear. “Ain’t no other woman like Shug.”
Shug has that “certain something that people are attracted to,” Stewart says. It’s “that star quality.”
“It’s your own essence that you bring to it,” she says. “Jennifer Hudson was a little bit slinky. Heather Headley was very stern, more direct. Jennifer Holliday was very funny. She brought more quirkiness to the character. I think I play on the sexy of who Shug is. Even though she’s broken, she’s the ‘it’ girl, and boy, she knows it. Even the women who hate her can’t help loving her.”
In the showstopping number “Push Da Button,” Shug cuts loose. “I come to have a party,” Stewart says. “I’m flirting with the men and teaching the women along the way.”
The Color Purple, which won the 2016 Tony Award for best musical revival, closed in January. Atlanta is the third stop on a 30-city national tour. As on Broadway, it’s a pared-down interpretation by director John Doyle, who has done the same with such shows as Sweeney Todd and Company.
The musical is based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel. It spans 40 years and traces the hardships that African-American women faced in the first half of the 20th Century in the South — poverty, sexism, racism, rape, incest and domestic violence. As you might recall, the show was developed in 2004 at the Alliance Theatre, then tweaked a bit for its 2005 Broadway opening.
The expansive original staging earned 11 Tony nominations (and a win for lead actress LaChanze, who played Celie). By the time it closed three years later, it had grossed more than $103 million.
The New York Times’ Ben Brantley reviewed both, calling the revival “a slim, fleet-footed beauty, simply attired and beguilingly modest” yet holding “a deep wealth of power within its restraint.”
This version is no spectacle, Stewart says. “You hear the juiciness in the words and in the language. That’s the heart of the show.”
In shaping the revival, Doyle says he “just looked at the text and saw what I needed to see from it. I treat it as a new play or a new piece.”
Atlanta’s J.D. Kellum, a real estate agent by day and a theatergoer by night, saw all three versions: the Alliance world premiere, its Broadway debut and this revival.
“Each one unforgettable,” he says. “To me, the magic of this show is in the way these gals know how to withhold.”
Kellum appreciates Doyle’s pulled-back interpretation. The minimalism of the set and the paring down of other elements, he says, “yields a maximum effect in amplifying the story and characters.”
Stewart, a lifelong Chicagoan from a big singing family, performed in the revival from opening night to closing night. As an ensemble member, she took on smaller roles (Church Lady) and understudied Shug and Sofia. The Color Purple was her Broadway debut.
She went on as Shug about a dozen times, “but never for Jennifer Hudson, because she never missed a performance.”
About owning the role now, she says, “I feel like a kid going back to school, the kid who’s so excited to be back, to build the show all over again, to meet new friends and be with my old friends again.”
Perhaps the high point from her Broadway experience?
“What comes to mind is a rehearsal,” she says, “shortly before we opened. Alice Walker sat in, and she was so pleased with the direction that John Doyle was going in. She said she felt like she was watching her book come to life.”