NEW YORK — John Doyle knows he wasn’t the obvious choice to direct the revival of “The Color Purple” on Broadway. In fact, when he was first asked by David Babani, head of London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, to helm a possible re-imagining of the show at his venue in 2013, he scoffed at the idea. He suspected people might be skeptical of an older white guy from the Scottish Highlands directing a female-centric story about the black experience in the Jim Crow-era American South.
“I said, ‘You are out of your mind,’ ” Doyle recalled. “I could see some people saying, you know, ‘This is our story to tell.’ I get that. I still am very sensitive to that criticism. So I had a lot of trepidation.”
After accepting the job, he leaned on his all-black cast, both at the Chocolate Factory and its subsequent transfer to Broadway, to guide him in bringing the show to life. “I sat down with the actors on the first day and I said, ‘I’m managing your story here. So you have to help me out. We have to find behavior patterns that are authentic to these people,’ ” says Doyle, seated at a cafe at Classic Stage Company in the East Village, where he serves as artistic director.
The resulting revival of “The Color Purple,” which landed on Broadway in 2015 starring Jennifer Hudson and pint-sized powerhouse Cynthia Erivo, became a critical and box office hit. Doyle earned raves for his stripped-down staging and his skill at zeroing in on the essence of its ultimate-survivor story — about the feminist awakening of an oppressed-yet-persevering African-American woman named Celie. Now the touring version of Doyle’s production, starring Adrianna Hicks as Celie and Carla R. Stewart as Shug Avery, strides into the Boch Center’s Shubert Theatre for two weeks beginning Tuesday.
Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the story spans 40 years and centers on the downtrodden Celie, who endures years of abuse at the hands of her husband, Mister (Gavin Gregory), and a long, painful separation from her beloved sister Nettie. As the years press on, Celie finds strength and a lasting friendship with the sassy, independent-minded Sofia (Carrie Compere). She also forges a tender bond with the alluring nightclub singer Shug Avery.
When the original “The Color Purple” premiered in 2005 on Broadway, with a score by pop songwriters Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray and a book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Marsha Norman, it became a box office hit and ran for more than two years. Yet it failed to garner much love from critics, who cheered its performances and score, but lamented its bloated size, ornamental packaging, and unwieldy storytelling.
The initial lukewarm response, Doyle believes, can be traced to an urge that “bigger is better.” “With a new piece, there’s a lot of money at stake and all these people in the room telling you what they think you should be doing. So there’s pressures to make it bigger, have more costumes, have bigger sets.”
The affable and self-effacing Doyle first made his name in the States directing Sondheim shows with single sets in which the actors played all their own instruments. (His revival of “Sweeney Todd” starring Patti LuPone honking away on the tuba won him a Tony award in 2006.) But with “Purple,” he didn’t want the performers to double as the orchestra.
Instead, he sculpted and streamlined the show’s book and score to focus on its essential elements. He excised all of the big dance sequences, including much of the Act II opening number about Nettie’s journey to Africa and a big production number around the Shug Avery song “Push Da Button.” He lopped off the overture and most of the musical transitions, while trimming bits and pieces throughout. In total, he was able to cut more than 30 minutes from the original.
Helping to move things along? No big set pieces trundling on and off the stage. Instead, Doyle fashioned a spare yet powerful design composed of wood-plank floorboards and a backdrop of artfully interwoven, broken wooden slats, evoking the front porch of a Southern home. There are only a handful of props, and 12 chairs get rearranged around the stage to create various locales.
“In essence, I’m interested in not slowing down the story,” he said. “The thing that bogs us down is the amount of stuff, scenic and technological, that can impede the audience’s imagination.”
The goal, Doyle says, is to home in on the story of “a girl’s relationship with her sister, her relationship with God, the breaking of faith, the resurrection of the human being. It’s very beautiful, very simple, and I wanted to get to that place.”
Bray, a pop songwriter who co-wrote such Madonna classics as “Express Yourself” and “Into the Groove,” admits that there were certain places in the original “Purple” where “I started to squirm in my seat” because of the way it dragged. “It’s tempting to add some razzle-dazzle, but all of that may have diluted some of Alice Walker’s storytelling,” Bray says. “John doesn’t want to do anything that will pull people out of the story — whether it’s the sound of a snare drum playing too loud in a song or a flashy guitar lick that you’re really fond of but doesn’t really support the storytelling.”
Doyle wonders if his penchant for streamlined minimalism can be traced back to his Scottish upbringing — “growing up looking at mountains and rivers and beautiful scenery, enjoying the simple things. I came from a family environment where we didn’t have much and didn’t expect much,” he says. “So I think there’s some connection between the desire to strip away that which is superfluous.”
‘I sat down with the actors on the first day and I said, “I’m managing your story here. So you have to help me out. We have to find behavior patterns that are authentic to these people.” ’
As the flood of sexual harassment and assault allegations against powerful men continues to dominate the cultural conversation, watching a story about tough, persevering women who resist male oppression, while forging their own identities and independence in the world, feels particularly resonant.
Says Hicks, who plays Celie, “Showing beautiful, powerful women every single night representing themselves in such a strong way — standing up and holding their own and having pride in who they are — that’s definitely something the world needs to see right now.”
The Color Purple
At the Boch Center Shubert Theatre, Boston, Nov. 21-Dec. 3. Tickets: $48-$110, 866-348-9738, www.bochcenter.orgChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.