“Push the button,” goes one refrain of the relentlessly button-pushing musical “The Color Purple.” Audiences who prefer not to be whipsawed between pure virtue and despicable evil should steer clear of this superheated show at the National Theatre.
The musical’s heart-tugging tactics are blatant and persistent, but that doesn’t mean the affair is entirely unskilled. Adapted in 2004 from Alice Walker’s popular 1982 novel, which was set mainly in rural Georgia during the first half of the 20th century, the show juxtaposes the unbearably brutal with the intensely sentimental. The men are simple violent dogs and the women — especially Celie, raped by her father and reviled as “ugly” by her snarling husband — are pitiable and charismatic. When gross injustices are righted as the blues-gospel-power ballad score hits anthemic heights, even the jaded might feel free, for an instant, to tingle away.
The non-Equity cast at the National renders the extremes of this saga with commitment and flair. (Perhaps the ensemble is relieved to be in one place for two weeks: This group played eight cities in 10 days to start the month.) The voices are sure and the bodies are generally limber, with the performers hitting a jubilant peak during the raunchy blues and snake-hipped dancing of the big juke-joint number, “Push Da Button.”