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The Color Purple

The Menier Chocolate Factory's revival of the Broadway musical based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel proves another hit for the Southwark powerhouse

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Nicola Hughes (centre) in The Color Purple
© Francis Loney

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 of the 2005 musical based on Alice Walker's novel and the Steven Spielberg movie that starred Whoopi Goldberg as the abused heroine in the Deep South is so fierce and contagiously powerful, it leaves you gasping for air and whooping for joy; well, it certainly had that effect on the first night crowd.

It's become almost a cliché to say that musicals can be about the darker side of life and still do the "uplift" job: this is a story of abuse, separation, cruelty and oppression, but with a happy ending. When one of the characters declares, defiantly, "I'm going to Memphis; and I'm gonna sing!" it's as though Ruby Keeler goes on as the understudy in 42nd Street and comes back a star.

The star here, though, is Cynthia Erivo, a comparative newcomer, who plays Celie, passing from teenage motherhood to middle-aged resolution, with a crouching, watchful intensity and a singing voice that can only be the result of leather lungs soaked in honey.

She gets through her nightmare marriage to Christopher Colquhoun's impossible farmer thanks to letters from her sister (Abiona Omonua is another revelation as the selfless Nettie) – which are kept from her at first – and her deepening friendship with a sexy lounge singer, Shug Avery, whom Nicola Hughes plays up a storm and then some.

Cynthia Erivo as Celie
© Francis Loney
Poor Celie: she's told that she's poor, she's black, she's ugly and (top disadvantage) she's a woman. But, by God, like the old diva in Follies, she's still here! As the piece is in part an historical document, its force as a rallying cry to the sisterhood is undiminished, and the songs take their boundless energy from that fact.

The programme, unfortunately, doesn't list the two dozen musical items, but the music and lyrics of a formidable pop song trio of Brenda Russell (her dad was in the Inskspots), Allee Willis (who's written for Earth, Wind and Fire, and Dusty Springfield) and Stephen Bray (a key Madonna collaborator) cover the full range of jazz, gospel, blues and ragtime, and are expertly stitched into Marsha Norman's book.

The seven-piece band under Tom Deering's musical direction sit comfortably at the side of a wide, tilting open stage of scrubbed boards with a bunch of simple chairs hanging on pegs that are pressed into dramatic service in church and domestic interiors. The Menier seems to have expanded into a new spaciousness, right up to its walls.

And here's another cliché: 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.

But the stage in general is like a forest fire, not least when Celie discovers her vocation as a trouser-maker and they all don coloured trews. You could say the show was now pants, but in a good way; they're all flying by the seat of them.

The Color Purple continues at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 14 September 2013