A story about rape, incest, domestic violence and racist abuse is an unlikely recipe for a musical, yet a Broadway adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple, set in 1930s Georgia, has just come to London after receiving 11 Tony Award nominations and one win in New York. The darker issues are swept aside in this wholesome European debut, directed by John Doyle, in which God and trousers triumph over ignorance and injustice.
The musical takes early black American music (accompanied by a brilliant little live orchestra) as the backdrop to the fluctuating attitudes, starting with a gospel choir and progressing through soul, jazz and Motown.
Celie is a young black girl who was abused by her father and then gets stuck in an abusive marriage. Cynthia Erivo plays her with an unfailing optimism that sometimes grates where it’s intended to warm the heart, but her voice is lustrous and her Motown-influenced duet with the “Queen honeybee”, Shug Avery (played by Nicola Hughes) is delicately impressive.
It might be the uneven pacing or it could be that everyone is just too damn happy in the face of tragedy, but it’s often hard to feel truly moved by these characters.
The sprawling narrative is hard to fit in a musical mould, so characters lose nuance and some intimate moments are played to the front, ignoring the audience on both sides of the thrust stage. The combined effect is that we’re missing the details. One scene revealing the reformed character of Celia’s husband shows his entire personality shift in a few short lines delivered by Erivo, listing his accomplishments; “I seen all your charity work…”
The many assertive, beautifully forceful women provide much of the comedy as they give their men sass and slap them down. Celie’s emancipation and decision to go into business making trousers seems to be construed merely for the sake of her line: “Who’s wearing the pants now?” bellowed heartily from atop one of the school chairs that are the only props and surrounded by sisters-in-arms, trouser-clad and powerful.
The audience whooped excitedly at this, and for a moment it felt like a full gospel church service had been fused with an episode of Oprah. If there was a consistent theme running through the performance it would be “You go, God” for he was in every line. The abundant, dewy-eyed love for him was too saccharine for my taste, and the lightening up of the original story doesn’t always sit well.
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