Review Round-Up: Mixed bag for Color Purple at the Chocolate Factory
The Menier Chocolate Factory's production of The Color Purple opened last night (15 July 2013). The musical, based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, stars Cynthia Erivo and Nicola Hughes and runs until 14 September 2013
This is the kind of musical theatre the Menier does best: a fresh, stripped back look at a past Broadway hit with a smart, tight band and a hand-picked cast bursting at the seams. John Doyle's revival… is so fierce and contagiously powerful, it leaves you gasping for air and whooping for joy… The star here, though, is Cynthia Erivo, a comparative newcomer, who plays Celie… with a crouching, watchful intensity and a singing voice that can only be the result of leather lungs soaked in honey… Abiona Omonua is another revelation as the selfless Nettie… there's not a weak link in the cast, and there really isn't. There are eye-catching, ear-bending contributions from Neil Reidman as the dastardly Pa, and Sophia Nomvete and Lakesha Cammock as rivalrous partners to Adebayo Bolaji's hilarious Harpo…
It might seem perverse to start a three-star review by recounting the standing, stamping ovation this show received… The racial and sexual politics of The Color Purple are unarguable but for me the over-simplification made the self-empowerment appear reduced and the piece stubbornly refuses to coalesce into a meaningful, heft-packed whole… Time passes unspecifically and everyone drifts in and out of relationships. Perversely, the show requires stronger anchors than this in order to fly… From the terrific opening number onwards, the tuneful cast makes a joyful noise throughout the mixture of blues, gospel and jazz songs. The impressive Erivo has a belter of a voice and Nomvete has spirited fun with Sofia's man-denying catchphrase, "Hell, no!" It's perfectly fine, but my feet remained unstamped.
…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… 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… The combined effect is that we're missing the details…
…I must admit to finding the show's emotional incontinence and artfully calibrated mixture of misery and uplift unappealing but if you like this kind of thing there is no doubt that John Doyle's production is a fine one… the show hurtles along with strong, vivid performances. The musical numbers… range from blues and gospel to raucous R&B and are thrillingly delivered by the cast. In this intimate venue they almost blow the roof off the theatre. Cynthia Erivo is genuinely touching as the tormented heroine… There's terrific work, too, from that powerhouse of musical theatre, Nicola Hughes… For all the merits of the production, however, The Color Purple left me longing for a nice quiet shade of beige.
Never was there such stamping, cheering, hooting, roaring and whistling… Yet by concentrating on the indomitable redemptive spirit and harnessing the heavy artillery of gospel, blues and jazz, Marsha Norman's musical tips the mirror upward… There are moments in John Doyle's production when this gung-ho approach is startling… But Cynthia Erivo as Celie is so compelling in her still, traumatised innocence… that the unease is transitory. Simple staging on scrubbed boards… intensifies and clarifies the changing relationships in her tale… The music is a riot, soloists and ensemble easily drowning the band, revelling in cool lyrics. Christopher Colquhoun is superb as the husband… Sophia Nomvete is splendidly funny as Sofia, as is Adebayo Bolaji as Harpo, the husband she makes a man of. They're all tremendous. And loud.