Review: The Color Purple (musical). Curve at home

‘The Color Purple’ musical, streamed on-line from The Curve, is a joyous celebration of survival and self-awareness. From the darkness of a painful story of systemic racism, lost faith and subjugation, comes hope and redemption. The filmed ‘concert’ format, performed socially distanced, does nothing to reduce the power of the story or the emotional impact of its message.

Based on Alice Walker’s best-selling 1982 novel of the same name, The Color Purple follows 35 years in the life of Celie, an African-American girl in Georgia. Adapted from the book by Marsha Norman, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, it’s musical adaptation exuberantly brings to life the time and the context of the novel.

The musical focuses on the story of a few black women finding their routes through the misogyny and powerlessness they find themselves in. Celie (T’Shan Williams) is abused first by her stepfather and then her husband. Treated as a servant, she knows nothing better until other women show her the way. These are Sophia (Karen Mavundukure), her sister-in-law, a forthright, no-nonsense woman, and the glamorous Shug Avery (Carly Mercedes Dyer), a local celebrity who Celie falls in love with.

T’Shan Williams as Celie is phenomenal. From naïve daughter to mature woman, the journey from childhood to self-awareness is demonstrated not just through expression and physicality, but in the change in power of her voice and presence.  We feel every step with her and the intimacy of the filming only supports this.  In fact, the socially distanced performance has no negative impact at all. Scenes that might normally feature a kiss, a hug, a passionate embrace work just as well through the power of the actors’ storytelling and the tightness of the excellent direction by Tinuke Craig.

There are strong performances throughout from Ako Mitchell (Mr), Simon Anthony Rhoden (Harpo) and KM Drew Boateng (Pa). All of these echo the prejudices of the male characters as well as their weaknesses.

Carly Mercedes Dyer, as Shug Avery, gives a glorious, layered performance in this role. Making her entrance as an entirely convincing fall-down drunk, she is cleaned up by the innocent Celie to become a new woman. Dyer’s voice is pure class, warm and controlled, speaking volumes.  Another beautifully emotional performance comes from Danielle Fiamanya as Nettie, Celie’s sister. Her vocal control and expression are absolutely solid and beautiful.

The musical score is a joy, and beautifully handled by Musical Director Alex Parker. From early gospel through country to rhythm and blues, there are lush harmonies, powerful anthems and heart-breaking melodies. Supported by on-point sound by Tom Marshall and atmospheric lighting by the talented Ben Cracknell, there is nothing missing through the lack of set or props. This is a strong story, simply told, packed full of grit and emotion.

The ensemble cast play multiple roles and their rousing, rounded sound makes them feel like a full community, rather than a small supporting cast.  The three ‘church ladies’ also bring some light relief in their gossipy humour and novel, over-lapping, almost-rapping phraseology. Mark Smith adds to this with some creative and fun dance choreography, all of which helps to lift the mood.

The Curve has revived this award-winning 2019 production in conjunction with the Birmingham Hippodrome, and it is very timely. This production has so much for us to reflect on:  themes of unity and acceptance, the struggles of black lives and the LBGTQ+ community, when almost a hundred years later, these are still central issues for society. But, most of all it offers hope and joy, and demonstrates, as if we need the reminder, the power of theatre to tell stories and to transform.

The Color Purple is available to view until March 7th. Times vary. Booking essential.

The Color Purple photos are by Pamela Raith.

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