It ran on Broadway for more than two years, and had three major American tours. Now, for its U.K. debut, “The Color Purple” is trimmed to fit the plucky 180-seat Menier Chocolate Factory near London Bridge.
The musical, based on Alice Walker’s novel, tells of the tribulations of a poor little black orphan named Celie. We first meet her in 1914. She’s been raped by her stepfather, and we watch as the resulting child is ripped from her arms. She’s then married off to a brute whose favorite hobbies are adultery, psychological torture, and cracking his whip all over the place.
Celie is forced to part with her beloved sister Nettie, and Nettie’s many letters are hidden from her. When Celie eventually reads them she discovers that Nettie is living in Africa, trembling with fear during a violent military coup.
Back in the States, Celie’s spunky friend Sofia is blinded in a racist beating. Celie gets a lesbian lover called Shug, who leaves her for a young man.
What, no fire in the orphanage? No crazed hounds slobbering at Celie’s heels? The authors clearly missed a few tricks.
Events shoot past like tennis balls, which means there’s not much time for nuance.
“Go near that mailbox, and I’ll kill you,” sneers the tyrant husband, just in case you’d forgotten that he’s the villain of the piece.
“Ain’t nuttin’ better than a good beatin’,” chirps the chorus to show how awful a black woman’s lot is.
It’s OK, though, because this the kind of show where the heroine learns to stand up for herself once she’s sung the title song, a theologically fuzzy pantheistic anthem about finding God in a blade of corn.
“Corn” is the word.
With all this suffering to get through, it’s amazing that Cynthia Erivo (Celie) gives the wonderful performance that she does. Thankfully, she makes the show watchable. Her stillness has a vibrating intensity, her climactic burst of anger throbs with authority, and her voice is terrific.
Nicola Hughes and Sophia Nomvete do the best they can with the underwritten roles of Shug and Sofia respectively. If you blink, you might even miss the fact that Shug and Celie become lovers, so chaste is their dry little peck of a kiss. Christopher Colquhoun blusters and stomps as Celie’s brutal husband.
The music is by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, which suggests a broth with too many cooks.
You can imagine their conversation -- “I’ll do the gospel chorus, you write the blues number, and you can do the power ballad.” There’s no organic moment when story and song magically gel. It’s efficient and forgettable.
John Doyle’s pared-down production takes place on a bare thrust stage, with just a piece of white cloth and a few chairs for props. It moves along smartly, and works just fine.
The Menier has had several musical successes and transfers, including most recently the superb “Merrily We Roll Along” currently playing in the West End. “The Color Purple” is unlikely to join their ranks. Rating: **.
“The Color Purple” is at the Menier Chocolate Factory. http://www.menierchocolatefactory.com or +44-20-7378-1713.
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(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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