Review: The Color Purple. Curve Leicester

This musical theatre stage adaptation of Alice Walker’s beloved Pulitzer prize winning novel, The Color Purple, is simply beyond beautiful. It holds truly emotional and sensational moments in the score. The work is tenderly crafted and given 150% dedication and focus by the sixteen strong cast plus creatives. This production of The Color Purple is spiritually alive and it is very much for now. If you love musical theatre that genuinely moves the soul you sincerely need to experience this glorious, vocally and visually pin sharp production. It is directed with a talented heart full of artful love by Tinuke Craig. Mark Smith’s choreography adds much to the style and episodic nature of this production. The Color Purple is a Made At Curve co- production with Birmingham Hippodrome. It is a total must see.

This is the story of innocent Celie (T’Shan Williams) who, in her mid teens, has already given birth to a boy and a girl. The children’s father is her own step father and she has the tiny babies unaccountably and cruelly removed from her care. We watch with some horror as she is then married off to the abusive whip cracking Mister (Ako Mitchell) and suffers a life of unloved servitude in his hands. Celie is also forcibly removed from the only real love in her life – her beloved sister Nettie (Danielle Fiamanya) who runs away to an unknown destiny.

Celie works hard at Mister’s farmstead and looks after his grown son Harpo (Simon-Anthony Rhoden) who one day comes home with a new lady love – a strong minded local woman called Sofia (Karen Mavundukure). The tide turns as Celie witnesses a woman who is willing and very able to stand up to Mister’s objectionable personality and uncaring bullying ways.

Then we hear of the arrival of the notorious Shug Avery (Joanne Francis). Mister is one of her many former lovers and he finds himself in sweaty anticipation of her coming to town. On arrival, she is in a sorry state and Celie puts herself in charge of her recovery. In doing so Celie finds her own self recovering and the beginnings of an awakening as she discovers in Shug a person to fall in love with and gain herself some much needed self-esteem. As she bathes the recovering Shug Avery, Celie describes her feelings in the song ‘Dear God’ as ‘Got about a million tingles sneakin’ on up my spine. I wash her body and it feels like I’m praying…’ The rest of the story is a whirlwind of emotional events with some very unexpected human twists and turns leading to revelations and redemption.

The musical’s book is by Marsha Norman and the music and lyrics are by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis & Stephen Bray and the story spans the years from 1904 to 1941. The powerful and often joyful musical score has its roots in the sounds of the black American south incorporating gospel, blues and jazz. With his seven member band, Alex Parker’s live musical direction really comes dramatically and harmoniously to life.

The whole ensemble are terrific and despite this story of grit and hardship there are plenty of laugh out loud moments created by the attitudes and actions of the cast. Particularly good in the humour of the piece are the three ladies who, part narrating through song, comment on and gossip about, the story unfolding. These are Darlene (Rosemary Annabella Nkruman), Jarene (Landi Oshinowo) and Doris (Danielle Kassarté) and the audience love their comical and sassy attitudes.

The amazing set (and costumes) design by Alex Lowde, incorporating stunningly evocative light and projection work from Joshua Pharo, gives the impression of the whirl of Celie’s world happening around her. Often-times the scenes are supported by set pieces sliding in and out of two large simple house shapes. In others the projections take over or compliment the visuals and achieve a dream-like spiritual quality. Pharo’s lighting periodically saturates the massive set walls with the colour purple in shades both rich and more pastel in nature.

The production leads are perfect casting. T’Shan Williams is highly sympathetic and inspirational as the slowly evolving Celie and her renditions of ‘Dear God’, ‘Lily of The Field’, ‘What About Love?’ and ‘I’m Here’ are worthy of standing ovations. Her tender relationship with Joanne Francis’ Shug Avery is very believable, at times heart breaking but also self empowering. ‘Too Beautiful For Words’ and ‘The Color Purple’ as sung by Francis are sensationally done. We also love the Juke Joint scene featuring Shug Avery’s sexually suggestive ‘Push Da Button’ song. Danielle Fiamanya’s ambitious school teacher and Celie’s sister Nettie brings great warmth and beautiful vocals to her part.

This is a consummately crafted piece of musical theatre terrifically well acted and sung here in this production on the Curve main stage. We fall in love with Alice Walker’s characters warts and all.

As audience we willingly invest ourselves for the evening in the fortunes of Karen Mavundukure’s headstrong Sofia, of Simon-Anthony Rhoden’s easily swayed Harpo, of Perola Congo’s motor mouth would-be singer Squeak and even Ako Mitchell’s Mister on his dramatic life path.

Like Celie we are also given the chance to question the nature of belief and love and in how we understand the presence of God and the paths we all venture down.

Highly recommended world class production.

The Color Purple runs at Curve Leicester until 13 July then at Birmingham Hippodrome 16-20 July.

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