Review: The Color Purple. (touring) Royal and Derngate

Those that have know of, read or seen Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Color Purple, will struggle to imagine how you could even imagine such a story to be told through a musical. Myself included with these puzzled people, I take my seat before the wide stage with no idea of what to expect. The silence is soon broken as the play opens with an awe-inspiring number. It’s until that moment that I knew that this show would be phenomenal. Though nothing can quite prepare you for the heart-rending story that follows, even with its soul inspiring music.

Based on Alice Walker’s historical book, written 40 years ago, The Color Purplehits Northampton’s Royal & Derngate this week for what isn’t long enough. The novel has been beautifully tailored by the Pulitzer Prize and Tony award winning Marsha Norman into a musical sensation. Touring under director Tinuke Craig, The Color Purple takes way back in the early 20th century, following a 14-year-old pregnant teen, Celie (Me’sha Bryan) and her younger sister Nettie (Aaliyah Zhané). Soon after having her child, Celie’s abusive stepfather (KM Drew Boateng) rips her baby from her it’s revealed that he is the father, with this not being the first instance. Enduring the her wicked stepfather, Celie is separated from her sister as she’s married off against her will to the malicious Mister (Ako Mitchell). For years she is victim of his cruelty, from just a child Celie is robbed of her family, innocence and love. Yet through it all she still stands, finding strength in herself as she meets Sofia (Anelisa Lamola), a woman with a fiery courage and the seductive Shug Avery (Bree Smith).

What is certain for the entire cast and ensemble is that every single voice is as beautiful as the words themselves. This is what allows a story like The Color Purple to be told through such a colourful way, you can feel the passion and heart ache in every voice. And despite it being labelled a musical, I’m surprised by how little breaks there are between each song. Dialogue is mostly used to carry on the story to be better told in song, which surprisingly works well with a story such sadness. The show finds inspiration from ragtime, jazz, blues and gospel as it features songs written by Grammy award winning Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. It’s hard to pick out just one song from its rich roster, though nothing moved me quite like Me’Sha Bryan and Bree Smith’s duet, ‘What About Love?’ I feel that this moment is what captures one of the emotionally rawest moments between the two, singing with such grace. However, the play still has some highs despite it all, much of which comes from Lamola’s Sofia. 

Me’Sha Bryan holds the spotlight as Celie, taking the lead throughout the show with ease. Taking on a role of a young girl surviving for her sister to becoming a woman forged and strengthened by her hardships and struggles. Quickly you find a deep sympathy for her, desperate for God to answer her prayers despite everything that happens. It’s hard not be impressed by her sheer talent as her vocals are just as impeccable as her acting.

While it’s unfair to have pick just a single name out of a cast this outstanding, I still can’t bear not mentioning the amazing Anelisa Lamola as Sofia. Taking to the stage for the very first time, she makes a first impression you can’t forget standing up as a strong, bold and hilariously witty woman. She steals all attention with every second on stage, having the audience gripped with her confidence. Not only could she manage to deliver humour so well in such a bleak story but to also give such a soul crushing performance a few scenes later.

My only thinkable gripe is that there could have been some minor touches to the sound, I find myself often straining to make out words amidst the clashing voices and music. At times there’s backing music occasionally drowning out words, though it’s nothing severe.

I can safely say that nothing can quite describe the justice this production does to the heart-rending story, written 40 years ago. To me, this is what theatre should be, breaking the creative boundaries to tell stories in ways that are unimaginable. Whether you are theatre buff or a newbie, a fan of the novel, film or even neither, The Color Purple is one of the few shows I believe should be seen by all. Book your tickets while you still can at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate as it leaves Saturday October 8th.

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