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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Color Purple
Menier Chocolate Factory   Summer 2013

The Broadway musical adaptation of Alice Walker's 1982 novel has much in it to entertain audiences, but not if they want songs to hum or much in the way of memories to keep afterwards. It's a solid journeyman piece of work, but with very little special about it. 

Like the novel, the show centres on Celie, a poor black woman with not much of a life. Repeatedly raped by her stepfather as a teenager, the babies taken away from her as soon as they were born, she is married off to a brutal man and settles in for a lifetime of joyless drudgery. 

Near the novel's end she discovers that her beloved sister and her children are alive and have been working as missionaries in Africa, is reunited with them, and lives happily ever after. 

Playwright Marcia Norman, adapting the book, solves some of the novel's problems while introducing others. Instead of just rewarding Celie at the end for a lifetime of passive pain, Norman builds up the significance of the strong black women Celie meets so she is inspired by them to grow and become strong and independent. 

Norman also integrates the African story, which in the novel is a lengthy digression, more smoothly into the main story. 

But she leaves us with a play – and a heroine – of two halves, Act One all about the passive sufferings of the born-victim Celie, and Act Two about the triumphs of the too-abruptly liberated and invigorated Celie. 

It takes some daring to build at least half a show around a character with no vitality and hardly any identity, and some courage for actress Cynthia Erivo to suppress so much of her own energy to play Celie as lumpen and personalityless. Were you to leave the theatre at the interval, you might not think much of the actress.

Fortunately Erivo gets to break out in the second half as Celie comes alive, so we can not only enjoy her company at last but also appreciate the acting job earlier. 

There are strong supporting performances by Christopher Colquhoun as Mister, Nicola Hughes as Shug Avery, Sophia Nomvete as Sophia and Adebayo Bolaji as Harpo. 

But a musical lives or dies by its songs and, these days, by its spectacle, and both are likely to disappoint.

Director-designer John Doyle's decision to go with an all-but-bare stage, with sets limited to a dozen wooden chairs, is appropriate to the material, though a little colour, particularly in the more joyful second half, couldn't have hurt. 

But the songs, by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray (each separately responsible for loads of pop and rock hits), are almost completely undistinguished and unmemorable. 

There are, inevitably, a couple of gospel-flavoured numbers, a dirty blues song for Shug, and big dramatic songs for both Celie and Mister, but they're all strictly generic and paint-by-numbers, and I defy anyone to remember any of them immediately after they've finished. 

The story of the worm turning and the victim finally getting her reward has a built-in feel-good quality that sends audiences out of the theatre happy. It's only when you try to remember any of it later, or recall melodies that can bring back the experience, that The Color Purple will begin to fade.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Color Purple - Menier Chocolate Factory 2013

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