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As a small white boy from Honolulu, I always had difficulty explaining my obsession with The Color Purple. I suppose it started with Alice Walker’s graceful writing in the book, and intensified when I watched Whoopi Goldberg’s and Oprah Winfrey’s powerful performances in the movie. But my fervor truly ignited when, on a rare trip to New York City, I saw the Broadway musical The Color Purple with my father and grandfather. And it was LaChanze, lighting up the stage in her Tony Award-winning role as the downtrodden Celie, who captivated my 16-year-old soul completely.
I fell in love with New York theatre because I fell in fanboy love with LaChanze. That night was my first inkling of the kind of wonder you can feel while watching great theatre, that double whammy of marveling at a performer’s skill on a cerebral level, while wallowing in the ache of raw emotion. LaChanze’s wide smile spreading shyly across her face during her duet with Shug; her piercing scream before the broken lament “Lily of the Field;” and, especially, the way her clear, vibrant voice lilted upward during the last note of “I’m Here,” the most profound declaration of humanity I’d ever seen. I’m still amazed that a fictional character could reach all the way from the stage and rend my heart asunder, even though, as I recall, our seats weren’t even that good.
Yes, the harrowing story of a black woman in early 20th-century rural Georgia is the reason this 21st-century island boy moved to NYC and became a theatre journalist. And to this day, I find I’m always holding actors to the bar LaChanze set that night. So you can imagine that the idea of seeing LaChanze onstage again after all these years in If/Then worried me. Could she possibly live up to my memory of her? Or perhaps, more importantly, was there still enough of that starstruck teenager in me to experience the same sweet awe?
Happily, I realized the answer to both of those questions was yes.
Although If/Then and The Color Purple have little in common, both benefit immeasurably from LaChanze’s natural buoyancy (a quality she possesses offstage as well, having survived the death of her husband in the September 11 attacks when she was eight-months pregnant with their second child). Unlike Celie, there’s nothing tentative or deferential about LaChanze as Kate, an extroverted lesbian kindergarten teacher and the main character’s BFF, whose sass and crackling wit earn most of If/Then‘s laughs. The playful way she removes the headphones from a stranger on the F train speaks volumes about her unabashed joie de vivre. She positively oozes love.
I’ve always thought it was her wide mouth, warbling those highest of notes, that was responsible for LaChanze’s magical delivery. But in If/Then I was struck by her eyes, radiating strength, despair, or delight like a laser beam. She’s one of those rare musical divas whose vocal prowess—though stunning—is secondary to her emotional communication. Her voice may tug at your heartstrings, but it’s her earnest vulnerability that makes this superfan cry like that starstruck 16-year-old again.
Speaking of which, here she is singing “Amazing Grace” at the dedication ceremony of the September 11 Memorial Museum. Excuse me while I go get my box of tissues.
Jack Smart is a Brooklyn-based arts journalist and critic, and a staff writer at Back Stage. He blogs about theatre and pop culture jacksmartreviews.com
Photo by Joan Marcus