Monday, 19 August 2013

The Color Purple: The Musical at The Menier Chocolate Factory.

If you make three visits to the theatre in the space of seven days, the chances are that at least one of the shows you see will be a bit of a disappointment. Well, I must have had the Midas touch last week because all three of the productions I saw surpassed my expectations.
As with Titanic a couple of days before, I had misgivings about The Color Purple as a musical. If you've read the novel by Alice Walker or seen the 1985 film version starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey, then you will need no reminder of how grim the subject matter is. Of course, grisly, bleak tales can make for excellent musical fodder, take Les Miserables, for example, but it's difficult to pitch things the right side of corny. There's nothing worse than an overly sentimental, cliche ridden travesty of a much-beloved classic, and it's for this reason that I was secretly holding my breath about the Menier Chocolate Factory's production of The Color Purple.
The first thing to say is that there is something about the MCF stage. It's a sparse setting with only a very small seating area, which allows the audience to feel very close to the action no matter where they are sitting and can help add to a person's involvement. The stage is used very wisely so that the actors are facing different parts of the audience at various points meaning that no seat is a 'bad' seat. There is also a moment in the opening scenes where the characters actively come and say hello to the audience as part of the opening song, "Huckleberry Pie/Mysterious Ways." (Not in a cringeworthy manner either, I might add).
The only props that are used throughout the entire show are some wooden chairs so you can imagine how much the production depends on the actors' ability to capture the imagination of the audience. It says a lot about how successful they are in doing so that it is only whilst writing this that it occurred to me that the chairs were the only props.

The original Broadway production's poster.
Again, as with Titanic, the show was first performed on Broadway. Produced by Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones, it opened in 2005 and garnered eleven Tony Award nominations, before going on to tour the U.S. Yet for some strange reason it has taken until 2013 for it to reach our shores here in Blighty.
The songs are both dazzling and heart-wrenching by turns, and the lyrics are funny, heartbreaking and charming to say the least. Major kudos must also go to Ann Yee for the stunning choreography. But of course, no matter how great the music and lyrics and even the choreography, none of this would work so well without a terrific cast. Thankfully, The Color Purple has just that.
Cynthia Erivo as Celie is outstanding in every aspect of her performance. Her acting is only eclipsed by her truly magnificent singing. Her closing solo number, "I'm Here," sent so many shivers down my spine, I felt genuinely cold. Honestly, I find it hard to understand what kind of a world we live in where people exalt the likes of the manufactured pop stars that clog up the charts, and yet Cynthia Erivo performs at a small if hugely-respected theatre in London Bridge. What's up with that, people?!

Nicola Hughes as Shug Avery (back) and Cynthia Erivo as Celie
(Photo via The Stage)
Of the rest of the cast, Sophia Nomvete as the tragic Sofia is a revelation. I won't lie, I might just have preferred her interpretation of the character to Oprah's in the movie. Her big number, "Hell No!," was undoubtedly one of my personal highlights of the evening. Nicola Hughes as Shug Avery is simply sublime and Christopher Colquhoun is a perfectly menacing Mister. Special mentions should also go to Abiona Omonua and Adebayo Bolaji in their excellent supporting roles of Nettie and Harpo, respectively.
Unfortunately, The Color Purple is only running until September 14th and is now completely sold out, but for the second time in a week, I was part of a standing ovation for an off-West End production that surely deserves a transfer. The sounds of clapping and cheering from the audience were deafening and I can't imagine that the cast don't get this kind of reaction after every performance. They certainly deserve it on the evidence that I saw.

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