Review – The Color Purple, The Musical, Menier Chocolate Factory, 3rd August 2013

The Color PurpleSaturday night saw another trip to the Menier Chocolate Factory, one of my favourite theatre venues. One thing you can say about the Menier productions, they’re never bland. Usually they come up with something really good and entertaining; occasionally they offer you a real stinker; and sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get to witness something mega-wonderful. The Color Purple (The Musical) is, I’m delighted to say, in the latter category. Full instant standing ovations are, I think, becoming a little more commonplace nowadays, but for the performance of The Color Purple on Saturday night it was absolutely deserved. Something I’ve rarely seen is that the emotion of the show and the quality of the performances were so strong that mini-ovations were breaking out around the audience during the second act, responding almost organically to the thrill of the show. That tells its own story.

Cynthia ErivoDo you remember the 1985 Spielberg film? I can vaguely recall it – I know I enjoyed it, and found it moving; I seem to remember Mrs Chrisparkle (Miss Duncansby as she was in those days) dabbing away at the tears in the car park afterwards. If the synopsis on wikipedia for the film is accurate, then the musical is very faithful to the original plot. Briefly, it’s the story of Celie, forced to marry a violent farmer (“Mister” is all she knows of his name) and her beloved sister Nettie, who goes to Africa with some missionaries; of Celie’s cruel home life and her will to survive, how she regains confidence and love through Shug Avery, and how the two sisters are finally reunited.

Nicola HughesIt’s based on Alice Walker’s novel, of course, and has music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, who between them have inter alia written such notables as Earth Wind and Fire’s “September”, “What Have I Done To Deserve This” by the Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield, and Madonna’s “Into The Groove”. For this show they have created some superb songs – jazzy, lyrical and showbizzy – which are played with great funkiness by the band. The book is by Marsha Norman and is tight, clear, intelligent and packing an emotional punch. The show opened on Broadway in 2005 and ran for over two years, where it was nominated for ten Tony Awards. It’s taken some time for it to reach the UK, but, boy, was it worth the wait.

Christopher ColquhounOne of the great things about the Menier is that when you descend the steps into the auditorium you never know how they are going to have re-jigged the acting space. It’s such an incredibly flexible venue; it must be a dream come true to an innovative director. For this production the seating is on three sides and the acting stage is a bare platform that juts massively into the available space and dominates the room. There’s no other scenery, and a few basic props only, which leaves it all up to your imagination to fill in the gaps. The stark bareness of the set emphasises the harshness of the day-to-day reality for the main characters, and it works beautifully.

Sophia NomveteJohn Doyle has assembled an incredible array of talent in the cast who work together as a terrific ensemble but it’s also studded with several star performances. The demanding main role of Celie is played by Cynthia Erivo, who we really enjoyed in Sister Act last year. As “Sister” Deloris she came across as a big powerful lady; in The Color Purple, it’s extraordinary how actually she is quite a diminutive presence, her stature reflecting both her youthfulness in the early part of the show and her lowly position in the pecking order of life as it proceeds. What she lacks in height she absolutely makes up for in power – in droves. She feels, and projects, all the emotions of Celie’s rollercoaster life; her face can light up with childish joy or be tortured by the agony of torment. Her rendition of “I’m Here” in the second act had the audience delirious with pleasure. It’s a superb performance and she wins all our hearts; absolutely top quality.

Abiona Omonua and Cynthia ErivoAnother star performance comes from Nicola Hughes as Shug Avery, Mister’s on-off girlfriend, who also becomes Celie’s on-off girlfriend. Full of confidence and exuding a “look-at-me” je ne sais quoi from every pore, Miss Hughes has a cracker of a voice and an innate sexiness that makes her perfect for the part. She too lives every emotion throughout the show, and I actually thought she was going to burst into tears at the finale. There’s a remarkably vivid and powerful performance by Christopher Colquhoun as Mister, creepily terrifying in his sadism with the young women, but later giving me goose bumps for his “epiphany” moment in the song “Celie’s Curse” which was just sensationally performed. His quiet, defeated and partially redeemed persona at the end of the show was a superb contrast to his prior wickedness. Stealing every scene she’s in is the wonderful Sophia Nomvete as Sofia, the gutsy girl who’s “Hell, No!” attitude usually gets her what she wants but is her downfall too. She’s extremely funny as the self-assertive Sofia when life is going well, but the scene where she has been beaten up was one of the saddest I’ve ever seen on stage; Miss Nomvete struggling to breathe whilst helpless drops of saliva involuntarily escape from her battered mouth. That’s a memory that will last a long time.

Adebayo BolajiThere’s also great support from the rest of the cast. Abiona Omonua is very convincing as Nettie, Celie’s kind-hearted and loving sister, and she and Miss Erivo have a great on-stage relationship; Adebayo Bolaji as Mister’s son Harpo has a great stage presence and brings out both the humour and decency of the role; and Lakesha Cammock makes a lively and funny Squeak, the new waitress at Harpo’s juke joint who gets delightfully jealous at any opportunity. But the entire cast is brilliant; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a musical sung quite so superbly from start to finish by every single member of the company.

It’s not often you see people openly weeping in their seats; the power of the emotions that this show creates is electric. This surely must have “transfer” written all the way through it like a stick of rock. You just have to see it. It’s a no-brainer. Book now!

Review – Sister Act, Milton Keynes Theatre, 21st June 2012

Sister ActRegular readers won’t be surprised to hear that Mrs Chrisparkle and I have never seen the original film of Sister Act but I always fancied seeing this show and wanted to catch it when it was at the Palladium, with Sheila Hancock as the Mother Superior. Alas it was not to be, but I jumped at the chance to see the current UK tour.

The story is pretty simple – showgirl Deloris sees gangster boyfriend murder a squealer so has to flee for safety. The softy police guy arranges for her to stay in the local convent, much to the disappointment of the rather staid Mother Superior but to the excitement of the nuns who learn amazing song and dance routines off her. As such their religious services gain massive popularity and thus Deloris’ cover is blown. The villains get close but it all ends with the suggestion of “happy ever after”.

With no pretensions to having a hidden message other than “evil is bad, good is great and isn’t it wonderful when we all get along”, this show is filled with feelgood fun-packed scenes and Mrs C and I sat through it beaming with pleasure. It looks smashing – lavish costumes, beautiful set, nicely lit; although some mischievous electricity gremlin turned up the house lights during a few scenes which felt odd. It’s got a nice big talented cast to use up the stage, and a superb twelve person orchestra which whacks out the jolly score superbly.

There were one or two slight issues that kept it in the realm of the 4* and not the 5* for me. For instance a couple of the numbers in the second half were over-amplified so that the lyrics were hard to follow; a shame, because the lyrics that we could decipher are really good. The nuns’ welcoming song “It’s Good to be a Nun” is very funny and the evil Curtis’ “When I Find My Baby” is nastily witty. Mind you, we both thought “Bless Our Show” strayed into the saccharine. That was the other slight problem; when the show gets a bit sentimental it loses some of its drive and punch, but that’s probably hard to avoid with the storyline as it is.

Cynthia Erivo What you certainly can say is that there are some terrific performances. As Deloris, Cynthia Erivo has a great presence, looks gorgeous and has a superb voice. She performs with gusto and pizzazz throughout, whilst still retaining the occasionally vulnerable aspect of her character. She creates an immensely warm and likeable atmosphere on stage, and having only graduated from RADA in 2010, I’m sure she will have a very successful career.

Julie AthertonJulie Atherton’s Sister Mary Robert, the rather timid postulant who gains confidence from her friendship with Deloris, has a belter of a beautiful clear voice which you could never predict from her diminutive appearance. Her character’s journey is very warmly told and Ms Atherton gives a super performance. Jacqueline Clarke, as Sister Jacqueline ClarkeMary Lazarus, has lost none of the cheeky charm she had as one of Dave Allen’s sketch partners back in the 1970s, and can use her relatively older age to great shock effect; like when she’s jazzing up some dance routines and dishing out some less than holy jokes in her no-nonsense manner. She was very funny and a huge hit with the audience.

Edward BaruwaEdward Baruwa plays Eddie Souther, the cop who rescues Deloris and hides her in the convent, and it’s probably the most realistic characterisation in the whole show. He’s a bit wet really, but struggles manfully with his wimpiness to great comic and emotional effect. His growing confidence with Deloris is a delight to watch and he has a brilliant routine – “I Could Be That Guy” – where he dreams of “coming on strong”, with his wonderful pastiche of slightly hamfisted 1970s soul performer. And with some very cleverly done changes of outfit – I saw how they did the first one but the second one was a big surprise! I really enjoyed his performance, and of course it’s very rewarding when his character saves the day at the end.

Cavin CornwallStraight out of pantomime, and absolutely excellent with it, is the evil Curtis played by Cavin Cornwall. Mr Cornwall has a magnificent voice and is convincingly nasty in his ruthlessness. He has scary authority on stage which provides a very funny juxtaposition with his ludicrous henchmen when they turn into backing singers and dancers – more entertaining performances from Michael StarkeGavin Alex, Tyrone Huntley and Daniel Stockton. Michael Starke’s Monsignor O’Hara is another very good performance, as he develops from being a rather starchy clergyman to a glitzy showbiz compère. I think his secret is that he gets just the right level of campness to the character so that it’s all the more believable.

Denise BlackIndeed the whole cast are excellent; I just have a slight quibble about Denise Black’s performance as the Mother Superior. She has a superb voice, and I loved her singing – she absolutely looks the part and gives a good combination of innate dignity and very human irritation when having to deal with Deloris. But I felt that she didn’t quite tweak all the humour or pathos out of the role. I’m sure she could have emphasised her withering looks or simply spoken the words in a more creative, slightly less pedestrian way.

Musically, the songs are bright and have good tunes but are strangely unmemorable. We enjoyed hearing them very much but when we left the theatre found we couldn’t bring any of them to mind – in fact we reached the car singing “You Can’t Stop The Beat” from Hairspray, very much in the same style as the Sister Act songs; but it’s not a good sign when you’re reminded of other shows. Mrs C in particular thought the only thing Sister Act lacked was a couple of strong numbers with really good hooks. On reflection, the lyrics are definitely more memorable than the tunes.

However, it really is an enormously entertaining show and a feast for the eyes, with some cracking performances, a very funny book and a great feel good factor. It received a very big reception from the audience and I’m sure this tour, which goes on till October, will continue to be very successful. I’d definitely recommend it.