Saturday night saw another trip to the Menier Chocolate Factory, one of my favourite theatre venues. One thing you can say about the Menier productions, they’re never bland. Usually they come up with something really good and entertaining; occasionally they offer you a real stinker; and sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get to witness something mega-wonderful. The Color Purple (The Musical) is, I’m delighted to say, in the latter category. Full instant standing ovations are, I think, becoming a little more commonplace nowadays, but for the performance of The Color Purple on Saturday night it was absolutely deserved. Something I’ve rarely seen is that the emotion of the show and the quality of the performances were so strong that mini-ovations were breaking out around the audience during the second act, responding almost organically to the thrill of the show. That tells its own story.
Do you remember the 1985 Spielberg film? I can vaguely recall it – I know I enjoyed it, and found it moving; I seem to remember Mrs Chrisparkle (Miss Duncansby as she was in those days) dabbing away at the tears in the car park afterwards. If the synopsis on wikipedia for the film is accurate, then the musical is very faithful to the original plot. Briefly, it’s the story of Celie, forced to marry a violent farmer (“Mister” is all she knows of his name) and her beloved sister Nettie, who goes to Africa with some missionaries; of Celie’s cruel home life and her will to survive, how she regains confidence and love through Shug Avery, and how the two sisters are finally reunited.
It’s based on Alice Walker’s novel, of course, and has music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, who between them have inter alia written such notables as Earth Wind and Fire’s “September”, “What Have I Done To Deserve This” by the Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield, and Madonna’s “Into The Groove”. For this show they have created some superb songs – jazzy, lyrical and showbizzy – which are played with great funkiness by the band. The book is by Marsha Norman and is tight, clear, intelligent and packing an emotional punch. The show opened on Broadway in 2005 and ran for over two years, where it was nominated for ten Tony Awards. It’s taken some time for it to reach the UK, but, boy, was it worth the wait.
One of the great things about the Menier is that when you descend the steps into the auditorium you never know how they are going to have re-jigged the acting space. It’s such an incredibly flexible venue; it must be a dream come true to an innovative director. For this production the seating is on three sides and the acting stage is a bare platform that juts massively into the available space and dominates the room. There’s no other scenery, and a few basic props only, which leaves it all up to your imagination to fill in the gaps. The stark bareness of the set emphasises the harshness of the day-to-day reality for the main characters, and it works beautifully.
John Doyle has assembled an incredible array of talent in the cast who work together as a terrific ensemble but it’s also studded with several star performances. The demanding main role of Celie is played by Cynthia Erivo, who we really enjoyed in Sister Act last year. As “Sister” Deloris she came across as a big powerful lady; in The Color Purple, it’s extraordinary how actually she is quite a diminutive presence, her stature reflecting both her youthfulness in the early part of the show and her lowly position in the pecking order of life as it proceeds. What she lacks in height she absolutely makes up for in power – in droves. She feels, and projects, all the emotions of Celie’s rollercoaster life; her face can light up with childish joy or be tortured by the agony of torment. Her rendition of “I’m Here” in the second act had the audience delirious with pleasure. It’s a superb performance and she wins all our hearts; absolutely top quality.
Another star performance comes from Nicola Hughes as Shug Avery, Mister’s on-off girlfriend, who also becomes Celie’s on-off girlfriend. Full of confidence and exuding a “look-at-me” je ne sais quoi from every pore, Miss Hughes has a cracker of a voice and an innate sexiness that makes her perfect for the part. She too lives every emotion throughout the show, and I actually thought she was going to burst into tears at the finale. There’s a remarkably vivid and powerful performance by Christopher Colquhoun as Mister, creepily terrifying in his sadism with the young women, but later giving me goose bumps for his “epiphany” moment in the song “Celie’s Curse” which was just sensationally performed. His quiet, defeated and partially redeemed persona at the end of the show was a superb contrast to his prior wickedness. Stealing every scene she’s in is the wonderful Sophia Nomvete as Sofia, the gutsy girl who’s “Hell, No!” attitude usually gets her what she wants but is her downfall too. She’s extremely funny as the self-assertive Sofia when life is going well, but the scene where she has been beaten up was one of the saddest I’ve ever seen on stage; Miss Nomvete struggling to breathe whilst helpless drops of saliva involuntarily escape from her battered mouth. That’s a memory that will last a long time.
There’s also great support from the rest of the cast. Abiona Omonua is very convincing as Nettie, Celie’s kind-hearted and loving sister, and she and Miss Erivo have a great on-stage relationship; Adebayo Bolaji as Mister’s son Harpo has a great stage presence and brings out both the humour and decency of the role; and Lakesha Cammock makes a lively and funny Squeak, the new waitress at Harpo’s juke joint who gets delightfully jealous at any opportunity. But the entire cast is brilliant; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a musical sung quite so superbly from start to finish by every single member of the company.
It’s not often you see people openly weeping in their seats; the power of the emotions that this show creates is electric. This surely must have “transfer” written all the way through it like a stick of rock. You just have to see it. It’s a no-brainer. Book now!