Being a fan of puppetry, particularly the use of puppetry to push boundaries, I was excited for my third show—the comedy Hand to God. In fact, Hand to God provided some immediacy for this vacation as it is closing on January 3.
Tyrone—a loud-mouthed, violent, and possibly demonic hand puppet—begins and ends the play with hilarious monologues about the nature of evil (spoiler alert: it’s humans who created evil… not the other way around). Steven Boyer keeps his hands moving at light speed as Tyrone rants, raves, and attacks both his ventriloquist Jason and the four other characters in this outstanding ensemble cast.
The setting is primarily the basement pre-school of a Texas church. In this room, Jason’s mother Margery (Geneva Carr) attempts to lead her three teenage “Christ-ketters” in performing a puppet show to extoll God’s graces. Jason has fears that his puppet Tyrone, first seen performing a barely audible version of “Jesus Loves Me,” has been possessed by the devil. The rest of the characters do not believe him until Tyrone bites off the ear of Jason’s sex-obsessed bully Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer). The vandalism that Tyrone writes on the walls of this pre-school during the intermission escalates Hand to God to a level of vulgarity that makes Book of Mormon blush with modesty, and a puppet sexual encounter between Tyrone and a female counterpart is made more hilarious as Jason and Jessica (Sarah Stiles) become increasingly bored by the encounter that is occurring at the end of their arms.
For its final weeks, Hand to God added Bob Saget to the cast as Pastor Greg. Saget was perfect in his role as the most restrained cast member—a contrast to his own explicative-ladden stand-up routines. The play is shifting to London’s West End following its closing on Broadway.
For my final show, I waited three hours in the rush ticket line to see Jennifer Hudson’s Broadway debut as Shug Avery in The Color Purple. I had wondered why Broadway was reviving The Color Purple a relatively short 10 years after the start of its original run (and only 8 years after its closing in 2008). The answer is that this production is a transfer from London, where director John Doyle created an original, toned-down staging. This “staged-down” version still hosts a cast of 17 extraordinary actors and singers. The set is minimalistic by Broadway standards, comprised of a wood-planking floor and wood chairs that serve as the only props.
Cynthia Erivo traveled from London to reprise her role as Celie, and her belting rendition of “I’m Here” near the end of the second act compelled many audience members to a standing ovation prior to the curtain call. Erivo also prompted a notable reaction from the audience with her line (directly from Alice Walker’s book), “If God had ever taken the trouble to listen to poor black women, the world would be a considerably better place.”
For me, the best moments (in addition to Hudson’s “The Color Purple”) revolve around Danielle Brooks and her performance as Sophia. She and Kyle Scatliffe (who stands more than a foot taller) as Harpo combine to create a stage duo that is equally apt for comedy as tragedy.
I enjoyed The Color Purple immensely in its original tour (which started in Chicago), and this second viewing was a different experience now that I have read the novel. I was surprised that almost every major character and plot event from the novel are included in the musical. Yet, one major plot twist is presented so quickly in this adaptation that audience members will almost certainly miss its importance. Celie’s discovery that Pa is not her real father is mentioned in the script only as part of a 10-second phone call. The scene is so quick that any actress playing Celie will have no opportunity to react to news that reshapes Celie’s memories of her childhood and her relationship to her children. Regardless, this one hitch in the script does not detract from The Color Purple. Audience members pay to see extraordinary singers perform deeply moving songs within the context of an inspirational story, and on all of those counts this Broadway revival delivers in full.