Cynthia Erivo, The Color Purple the Musical [image by Nobby Clark]
It’s 40 years after the abolition of slavery, Celie Harris finds herself trapped in another form of bondage. Estranged from her two children, the 14-year-old is married off to Georgia landowner Mister. When her new husband banishes Celie’s sister Nettie; her only comfort, Celie’s life descends into a gruelling and violent existence. But new faces bring new life and hope to our heroine as she sees women refusing the roles assigned to them. Under the influence of the outspoken Sofia and the infamous Shug Avery we watch Celie gradually emerge from her servile chrysalis. Set in the birthplace of the blues, music narrates this production with rich velvety tones provided by the live band. With a supremely talented cast doubling as the ensemble and the awesome voice of Cynthia Erivo as Celie, the sheer power of sound is intrinsic to the play. As new dreams take the place of old ones and different paths are paved we see how a simple act of love can transform a person’s life.
The Color Purple is a flawlessly performed production which champions the power of hope even in the darkest hour.
The Menier Chocolate Factory has brought the sights, sounds and struggles of early 20th century America to the London stage in consummate style. The opening scene sets the rhythm for the entire production thanks to the tight direction of John Doyle. The full cast promenade onto the stage in their Edwardian Sunday best before bursting into a gospel hymn with plenty of gesticulation and cries of hallelujah. Based upon Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, the narrative is set in a period of rapid social change, especially in America’s deep south. Mister played by Christopher Colquhoun is the son of a slave. As the first generation outside the fetters of serfdom his need to assert himself as master shows itself in his egotistical domination of all he surveys. The changing attitudes of and towards women is central to the production and this is powerfully embodied by the character Sofia. Disapproved of by her father in law, Mister, she demands respect and is inferior to no one. Sophia Nomvete plays the role with sass and superb comedy timing.
With a supremely talented cast doubling as the ensemble and the awesome voice of Cynthia Erivo as Celie, the sheer power of sound is intrinsic to the The Color Purple.
The set designed by John Doyle is minimal, consisting of a series of wooden chairs suspended from the back wall. Throughout the production these basic pieces of furniture convert to farm equipment, bathtubs and beds. A rather clever touch is the actor’s using the chairs as platforms during monologues or musical solos. This is spectacularly effective during Shug Avery’s juke joint performance; the sequined flapper elevated above an adoring audience clamouring to get closer. Nicola Hughes is magnificent as the itchy footed lounge singer desperate for male adulation. She postures and pouts knowingly; only letting her guard down in the intimate moments she shares with Celie.
Cynthia Erivo as Celie is an operatic force of nature. Playing the role over a period of three decades we watch her grow from a shy teenager in a pinafore to a tenacious woman seeking her own destiny. Like her acting which is heartfelt and measured, Erivo’s adaptations to her character are subtle. The deepening of her voice and straightening of her gait show her advancement in years and confidence. It is hard to believe such an enormous voice can emanate from Erivo’s delicate frame. Her solo numbers capture an intensity of emotion that spoken words could never accomplish.
So often musical adaptations rely upon spectacle to bolster a limited plot. The Color Purple, however, is an incredible story expressed resplendently through song. The cruelty experienced by Celie and other characters is shocking, but gives a salient insight into race and gender relations of the period. A flawlessly performed production which champions the power of hope even in the darkest hour.
Cynthia Erivo– interview, The Color Purple