The Menier Chocolate Factory, London, Tuesday July 30th, 2013.
When was the last time that what you heard or saw was just incomprehensibly beautiful? Not in a cheesy way, but a time when you were just overwhelmed by a piece of theatre? That was this show for me. My lasting impression, almost three years later, is that this is the most beautiful musical that I have seen to date. I attended en masse with family members and every single one of us left raving about how impressive the production was; from the set and sound design to the superb cast and the gargantuan talents of Cynthia Erivo as Celie.
When I first heard that there was to be a musical based on Alice Walker’s novel, I couldn’t compute how a tale filled to the brim with such devastation could be transposed into a glittering top-hat-and-jazz-hands spectacle… I therefore showed no interest in having my love of the novel destroyed by any attempt to make it jolly and more palatable. Then the glowing reviews emerged, so I decided to tell my cynical, prematurely judgemental self to hush up and I got some tickets. The platform of a musical seemed suddenly to be the perfect fit; personal tragedy and triumph are the basis for every haunting/life-affirming/ inspirational/ defiant hit in the top ten, after all. The superbly talented cast belted their way through each soaring song of pain, struggle, retribution and freedom- sending shivers down my spine and bringing tears to my eyes more often than I can count.The music in this production was comical, uplifting and deeply moving.
Cynthia Erivo was utterly outstanding. Her vocal talent seemed immeasurable, but it was her ability to wrap her arms around the audience and take them on Celie’s journey so feelingly, that has had a lasting impression. The film has always been a favourite and I was so glad to see the cast make their own mark with their visions of the characters. From memory, Sophia Nomvete’s Sofia was both funny and recognisably formidable but made that famous line her own. Abiona Omonua played Nettie and I remember noting how graceful she was in each scene while Adebayo Bolaji, who played Harpo, was endearingly flawed.
The impression of the set stays with me because the production felt so full and rich, yet the set and staging were so simple, which seemed a contradiction… However, the very, very clever set design was powerful in its simplicity, allowing the story to take centre stage and thereby managing to use the musical form in a way which did not diminish Walker’s emotive and gut-wrenching original. It comes as no surprise that this production, and Erivo in particular, have been such a hit on Broadway. I fully expect a Tony or two, at the very least.
‘The Color Purple’ made it to the top of my musicals list and has remained there, unsurpassed even by the brilliant ‘Memphis’, which I have seen more recently and which has a similar core of struggle and success, yet finds itself in second place. ‘The Color Purple’ is a different kind of musical, able to tell a more sombre story without the camp of the more famous, long-running shows and neither before nor since have I found a musical to be quite so touching or enveloping. Fantastically, this production made me re-evaluate my amateur views of ‘musicals’ and it is precisely because this was so different, more authentic and affecting, than anything else I had seen, that it has made such a lasting impression. Unfortunately, I saw it too close to the end of its run at The Menier Chocolate Factory to have the chance to see it for a second time. If you get the opportunity to see this show, go. If it miraculously returns to the West End, I’ll be the first in line for tickets; ‘The Color Purple’ is absolutely not to be missed.