The Color Purple review – a musical with heart, spirit and soul

Curve, Leicester
Alice Walker’s novel is transformed into an exuberant celebration of community and female empowerment

Incest. Child abuse. Rape. Domestic violence … the foundations of Alice Walker’s 1982 epistolary novel don’t sound like good material for a sweet-toothed movie, let alone a Broadway musical. However, her story of one woman’s survival against the odds has a Cinderella sense of fulfilment that makes its dark subject matter curiously palatable for a mainstream market. Certainly, the speed with which the first-night audience at this bracing regional premiere leapt to its feet to applaud a mighty Curve ensemble testifies to the power of a musical rooted in hardship and struggle.

The adaptation, by Marsha Norman, could be more explicit, of course. With its telegraphed dialogue skipping through the scenes to allow the songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray to carry the emotional weight, it glosses over the scale of poor Celie’s abuse. If we had to dwell on the misery of a teenager who is raped by her stepfather, then has her babies taken away from her before she is farmed into a slave-like marriage, we’d never get past the first song.

Likewise, in the good-hearted context of a musical, Celie’s line about not knowing her husband’s name gets a laugh, but it signals an appalling level of abuse that is largely brushed over. Equally, however, the stage version has none of the insipid romanticism of the Steven Spielberg movie, offering instead something with considerable integrity.

‘An invigorating sense of community.’
‘An invigorating sense of community.’ Photograph: Manuel Harlan

And it is this integrity that director Tinuke Craig is most true to. When discussing a musical, it is tempting to talk about the big choral numbers and the company dance routines, and with this Color Purple that wouldn’t be hard. Musical director Alex Parker takes the 17-strong cast through exuberant gospel numbers that create an invigorating sense of community, while Mark Smith’s choreography – all elbows and hands – has a snappy, syncopated precision that is a joy to watch. That’s all great, but the real strength of Craig’s production is its stillness.

It is most apparent in T’Shan Williams’s performance as Celie. As a singer she is capable of belting it out and, when called upon, she’ll bring the house down – as she does with the climactic I’m Here, a jaw-dropping performance sung solo on an empty stage. You wouldn’t want to take that away from her, but just as impressive is her restraint. Craig often positions her lying downstage on her front, singing softly, drawing us in with a mask-like capacity to let emotions be projected on to her. The lack of assertiveness is not only appropriate for a character who remains cheerful despite being dealt the worst hand life has to offer, but also magnetic in its own right. Williams is the opposite of histrionic – and all the better for it.

Ako Mitchell as Mister and Danielle Fiamanya as Nettie.
Ako Mitchell as Mister and Danielle Fiamanya as Nettie. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Her voice is particularly well matched to that of Danielle Fiamanya as sister Nettie – another star performance – their harmonies sweet and delicate. It’s a quality of Martin Higgins’s orchestrations that the raucous bar-room blues and all-hands-on-deck gospel so often gives way to a slinky, stripped-down jazz that shows off the vocal lines to best effect.

All the time, Craig keeps the action keenly focused on the singers and songs, whether it’s Joanna Francis as an earthy Shug Avery, unapologetically driven by her passions, or Karen Mavundukure relishing the boldness of Sofia in a show that celebrates female empowerment. In that focus, Craig resists the artform’s pull towards glibness to create a show with soul as well as spirit.

• At Curve, Leicester, until 13 July and at Birmingham Hippodrome, 16–20 July.

Contributor

Mark Fisher

The GuardianTramp

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