Review by Daz Gale
The joint production of The Color Purple from Birmingham Hippodrome and Curve Leicester have had a tumultuous journey over the last few years. Originally staged at Curve Leicester in 2019, it was due to return for a socially distanced concert run in 2020 which was cancelled due to changing guidelines. They very quickly reacted, filming the production in one of the incredible Curve at Home streams we all loved over the lockdowns. Now, though, the show has come full circle as it kicks off its first ever UK tour, fully staged and to a full audience. But was it worth the wait?
Based on the novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple was famously adapted into a 1985 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. The musical adaptation first appeared on Broadway in 2005 with a 2015 revival starring Jennifer Hudson and Cynthia Erivo (one of the shows I will always kick myself for missing) but comparatively, it has rarely been seen in the UK. The show was always at the top of my lists for musicals I wanted to see in person, and thankfully a wrong has now been righted for me personally.
With a book by Marsha Norman, The Color Purple tells the story of the downtrodden but full-hearted Celie who, after spending her youth abused and oppressed, goes on her own journey of self-discovery, finding beauty and love in the unlikeliest of places. With some difficult and disturbing themes including abuse and the mistreatment of women, The Color Purple is always told with the women at the forefront, leaving no doubt who the true heroes (or heroines) of the story are.
Leading the cast is Me’sha Bryan who gives a truly beautiful and emotive turn as Celie. Full of heart and keeping a sense of warmth even in the most troubling of situations, Me’sha perfectly embodies the character, delivering a showstopping performance that had everyone in the theatre cheering her on every step of the way. She is joined by Aaliyah Zhané as her sister Nettie, who may disappear for most of the show but makes the most of the time she has on stage in a stunning portrayal.
Bree Smith is an absolute standout as the ballsy Shug Avery, giving a dynamic and completely captivating performance. Her big musical number ‘Push Da Button’ is an undoubted highlight of the evening. Such is the quality of her performance, when Celie falls in love with her, so does the entire audience. Another sensational highlight in a truly terrific cast is Anelisa Lamola who is mesmerising as Sofia. Having to go on a journey herself, she channels two very different parts of Sofia in a truly artful characterisation that was a masterclass in acting.
While the women may be front and centre in The Color Purple, the talent of the men in the show doesn’t go unnoticed. Ahmed Hamad gives an authentic performance as the sweet and understated Harpo, while Ako Mitchell is as wonderful as ever, showing a completely different side to his talents from the other shows he has been in this year. As Mister, he channels every ounce of the sinister and abusive nature of his personality in a performance that may prove difficult to play but is carried out flawlessly. Every cast member on that stage deserves to be singled out as they were all jawdropping to witness, coming together to create one of the finest ensembles I’ve witnessed on a stage of late.
The music in The Color Purple is otherworldly in its quality. From the rousing ‘Hell No!’, the unexpected highlight of ‘In Miss Celie’s Pants’ and the truly beautiful title number ‘The Color Purple’, the music and lyrics from Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray may have never sounded better than they do in this production, thanks to the glorious musical supervision of Alex Parker and musical direction of Ian Oakley.
There is one song I have to mention and that is the incredible feat of music that is ‘I’m Here’. Possibly one of the greatest musical theatre songs ever written, I had always longed to experience it in person during this show, and it didn’t disappoint. Full of emotion and poignancy, Me’sha Bryan delivered a note-perfect performance that really was one of the ages in a spine-tingling rendition of such a beautiful number.
With phenomenal direction by Tinuke Craig and Lakesha Arie Angelo, the staging of this production is genius with fantastic choreography from Mark Smith really bringing the performances to life. Set design from Alex Lowde has a deceptively sparse large space filled transformed thanks to an ever-changing backdrop from various reveals in the wall that fills the stage. Beautiful lighting and video design from Joshua Pharo are a highlight of the production, making this gorgeous to witness in every way.
It may have taken a while for The Color Purple to be back on stage in the UK but it was more than worth the wait. Taking an already beautiful story and playing it out with such sensitivity and heart, Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome have managed to find new elements to the story that seem to be even more emotional and hard-hitting following the events of the last few years. The storytelling is played out a marvellous feat of acting from an outstanding cast. What you are left with is a practically perfect musical that manages to be joyous and life-affirming, despite the difficult journey the plot takes to get to its resolution. A joy to finally see on stage for me personally, and a production that deserves to run and run. Now that The Color Purple is here, let’s hope it doesn’t disappear again.
The Color Purple is on tour until November 5th.
Catch it at Birmingham Hippodrome until September 17th
Theatre Royal Plymouth 27 September – 1 October
Royal & Derngate Northampton 4 – 8 October
The Lowry, Salford 11 – 15 October
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff 18 – 22 October
Mayflower Theatre Southampton 25 – 29 October
Norwich Theatre Royal 1 – 5 November
Photos by Manuel Harlan