Curve Leicester have proven themselves to be one of the pioneers of the medium of virtual theatre, having changed the game with their revolutionary production of Sunset Boulevard late last year. That production was cited by many, included myself, as one of the standout streams of the year. So how on Earth do you follow that?
Originally playing at the Curve Leicester in 2019, The Color Purple was due to return to the venue last year to play a socially distanced concert run. When government restrictions shut those plans down, another virtual production was announced, reuniting some of the cast and creatives from the past production.
Based on the novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple is perhaps most famous for its 1985 movie adaptation starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. The musical adaptation first appeared on Broadway in 2005 but has rarely been seen in the UK and, remarkably, has never appeared in the West End. As such, this was not a show I had seen before. With Sunset Boulevard I could compare every nuance to previous productions I had seen. With The Color Purple, I was going in completely blind.
The show tells the story of Celie, an African-American woman living in the American South in the early 20th Century. Through the story, we meet her friends, family and lovers and watch her life unfold right berore our eyes. The role of Celie is played by T'Shan Williams, who gives the performance of her life, channelling every ounce of emotion there is to find in her story. A slow-burn of a performance, T'Shan's Celie starts the show fairly withdrawn and quiet before finding our strength to emerge as the hero of the tale. The entire cast are at the top of her game with not a weak link in sight, but T'Shan ensures she is never far from focus and that all eyes are firmly on her, even when she is in the background.
It may be hard to compete with such a formidable player but the rest of the cast hold their own to ensure they maximise the potential of the characters they have been cast as. Danielle Fiamanya is wonderful as Celie's sister, Nettie, bringing the initial sweetness of the character to life, while never doubting the strength of her beliefs. Shug Avery is built up early on in the show but it takes a while for her to make her first appearance - when she does, it is like she has been on the stage the whole time. Played by the incredibly talented Carly Mercedes Dyer, she is unstoppable - a big character with some big flaws early on. It is said that everybody is in love with Shug, and that extends to the viewers. Played with pure charisma by Dyer, whenever she is on stage, you know magic is about to happen and the scene is about to be stolen.
The women in this show are the main players and the fourth is Sofia - a strong willed lady who loses herself in the middle of the show only to return to her former glory later on. The role is played brilliantly by Karen Mavundukure who effortlessly switches between the characters strength. While the women take centre stage, the main male characters still hold their own with current star of Hamilton Simon Anthony-Rhoden giving a standout performance as the one likeable male character in the show. But this is a show about sisterhood and the strength of women - while they may start off being seen as much weaker than the male characters, the roles reverse through the show until they become the dominant players.
A hard watch at times due to harrowing elements in the story, the cast ensure no matter what hardships they are facing in the story, you are utterly captivated. With every performance being a testament to sheer perfection, the cast are the jewel in the crown of this performance and enough reason alone to give this production a watch. However, this is so much more to this.
The music, by Brenda Russell, Alee Willis and Stephen Bray is simply stunning. With diverse themes, there are numbers that will make you smile, laugh and sob. Be it 'In Miss Celie's Pants', the beautiful title track 'The Color Purple', the anthemic 'Hell No!' or the shows standout number, 'I'm Here' - surely one of the greatest musical theatre songs of all time, performed here flawlessly by T'Shan Williams, the songs add to the consistency and strength of the show.
It is evident that a lot of consideration and care has gone into making this production. The creatives have embraced this new medium of virtual theatre to create a hybrid of a film and a stage show. Clever details such as Celie looking directly into the camera in pivotal moments in the show ensures that she is still connecting to the audience, even if she can't see them in front of them. The equivalent of getting direct eye-contact in the theatre, it creates a powerful connection that cannot be underestimated. The whole production is beautifully shot with gorgeous lighting. While the action stays on the stage this time around, unlike their previous production, the use of it still feels grand due to smart camera shots, and creates a more immersive feel to the production.
The challenges the pandemic and social distancing has brought to the theatre cannot be avoided, and that is present here. The cast members never touch each other - while it might seem odd in moments where they are supposed to brush somebody's hair, hug or kiss, the power and effect of these moments is never lessened, and thankfully doesn't make you lose the sense of escapism. It is a testament to the talent of the creative team with clever editing and staging as well as the talent of the cast themselves that they manage to create a sense of intimacy, even without touch.
If Sunset Boulevard was a complete triumph for Curve Leicester, The Color Purple makes it two in a row. Beautifully staged, cleverly produced and phenomenally acted, this was a sensational piece of art. Evoking that feeling of why I love theatre so much and why I miss it with all of my heart, The Color Purple miraculously managed to fill that musical theatre shaped hole. While it can never be the same as being there, this was as close as it gets. Without a doubt the best stream of 2021 so far, this is a must-see. The cast and creative team should all be thanked for managing to bring this beautiful story to life in such a remarkable way given all of the challenges around them.
The Color Purple is available to stream until Sunday 7th March. Tickets available from https://www.curveonline.co.uk/whats-on/shows/the-color-purple-at-home/