Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:
There are some musicals which grow in stature the more they get stripped back. The Color Purple is one such musical.
The recent Broadway revival – a transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s 2013 London production – shrugged off the original production’s cinematic look (designed to evoke memories of Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film) in favour of sepia-tinged timbers and a few wooden chairs. It was an approach which threw the songs (by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray) into sharp focus.
That production connected so successfully with the plight of Celie – who starts the story as a 14-year-old girl who has already borne two children through rape by her father – that the opulence of an orchestral concert version initially seems incongruous.
How could a cast dressed in their best gowns and suits, backed up a smartly dressed, 35-strong chorus from the British Theatre Academy, portray the cruelty and poverty of 1930s America in which Celie eventually finds love?
Superbly well, it turns out. For Alice Walker’s original novel, and its adaptation by Marsha Norman (which also draws on the Spielberg film) is so powerful, and the concert’s central performances so engaging, that for one evening, the Cadogan Hall is transported to Georgia.
The hall’s interior has the looks and the acoustics that perfectly suit the gospel-infused numbers, the vibrant ensemble raising the roof with the fervour and synchronised moves of a gospel choir, choreographer Mykal Rand achieving wonders with a group of young people who are part hidden behind the eight-piece band.
It is the lead vocals that help make The Color Purple such an inspirational, emotional musical, though – and the talent director Danielle Tarento has assembled for this charity performance brings the best out of the material.
Playing Celie, Marisha Wallace (currently the alternate Effie in Dreamgirls) is suitably cowed and disillusioned with life and God, as she is passed around from her abusive father (Hugh Maynard) to Cavin Cornwall’s equally brutal Mister.
The childish joy she shares when playing singing games with her sister Nettie (the delightful Seyi Omooba) contrasts with the bullying she receives.
Celie’s growth, and recognition that she too may be deserving of love, comes through two female relationships.
Wendy Mae Brown’s Sofia, Mister’s daughter-in-law, stands up to the sort of treatment Mister dishes out, in a performance which starts out hilariously broad before developing its own strand of darkness.
But it is the character of blues singer Shug Avery, with whom Celie falls in love, that opens up the person. Rachel John is radiant as Shug, an engaging woman who is unafraid to explore her sexuality, be it with Mister, Celie or the teenage members of her band.
With so many glorious female performances, the men of the show can sometimes feel less significant – but with Tyrone Huntley playing Mister’s son Harpo, such fears are misplaced.
Huntley’s voice combines delicacy and power in ways that ensure that his Olivier nomination last year for his role as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar is unlikely to be his last.
In his hands, Harpo is an idealistic, charismatic young man, the exact opposite of his father. Whether paired with Brown’s Sofia, or with the onomatopoeically-named waitress Squeak – a bravura performance by The Life’s T’Shan Williams highlighting the actress’ comedic abilities – Huntley turns his character into one of the several points of light in Celie’s darkest days.
But it is Celie herself who provides the best moments in this evening. Wallace’s duet with John, ‘What About Love?’, closes Act I with an evocation of love between two people that is just about as perfect as musical theatre gets.
But that is just the warm up for Celie’s big 11 o’clock number, ‘I’m Here’. A towering tour de force, Wallace shrugs off the timidity and pain of Celie’s early moments to deliver a solo of such power and energy that one fears for the solidity of the building around her.
The long, hearty standing ovation that interrupts the show afterwards is well deserved for an actress whose position as a West End alternate is clearly not enough to contain her talents.
As a celebration of a musical which itself celebrates triumph over adversity, this concert version of The Color Purple delivers even more than the sell-out audience could have expected.
But more importantly, it both raises funds for, and awareness of, the British Theatre Academy: providing training and performance opportunities for young people around the UK, in an environment where the costs of training threaten to restrict access to the acting profession only to those with the deepest pockets.
Celie’s story, of family and love giving her the means to find her own success in life, could hardly feel more appropriate.