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Blues, jazz and soulful soundtrack to emotive drama
The powerful emotion of The Color Purple has affected generations of readers of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel along with viewers of Steven Spielberg's film. Now, Birmingham Hippodrome and Leicester's Curve have co-produced a new version of the stage musical - but will it have the same impact?
The Color Purple is far from an easy family drama as it charts 40 years in the troubled life of heroine Celie in America's Deep South.
The audience is quickly introduced to challenging themes of domestic, sexual and physical abuse and there will be incest, racism and police brutality to follow. Yet despite that, the story eventually rewards the audience with a satisfying metamorphosis of Celie, through her own personal awakening of self-worth.
Passion, hate, unrequited love, forgiveness - this plot has it all and your tears will be filling up a sea of emotions by the finale - so go prepared with some tissues.
Performed at Birmingham Hippodrome from 16 to 20 July, The Color Purple keeps the essence of the novel under the stewardship of director Tinuke Craig, who was the winner of the 2014 Genesis Future Directors Award.
It's not the first time The Color Purple musical has been on stage as it has featured several times on Broadway since its world premiere by the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. This latest version uses the same book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics that won the show a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical in 2016, when it starred Jennifer Hudson as Shug Avery.
While Birmingham Hippodrome and Curve have used the same script and songbook, they have made the rest their own. Interestingly, producing A Color Purple has been a signature investment for Birmingham Hippodrome this year to celebrate the theatre's 120th year - and it does seem a fitting production choice to reflect the diverse city it serves.
This new version has scaled back the set design with a simple stage of white clapperboard buildings that are easily transformed into various locations and also provide the ideal backdrop for projections to show fields of crops or African lands at the beginning of Act Two.
While there's a neutral background, the costumes are vibrant and sassy with a touch of modernity despite keeping in the style of the era (from 1912 to 1950's). Fiery oranges and passionate purples contrast against dazzling white dresses, parasols and gloves of the Church Ladies.
Director Tinuke Craig does well to translate such challenging subjects to stage with grace and, surprisingly, plenty of humour. The music helps hugely to lighten the mood but the comedic use of the trio of gossiping ladies Doris, Jarene and Darlene as a kind of singing Greek chorus is a winning formula.
They are one of the highlights of the show, played distinctively and charismatically by Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah as Darlene, Danielle Kassarate as Doris and Landi Oshinowo as Jarene. You'll look forward to every time they are on stage.
It's this light against the darker moments of the plot that are so impressive and makes the musical err on the side of uplifting rather than despair.
A tale about a community in the deep south of America
There's some excellent casting too, especially in terms of the vocals. T'Shan Williams is a compelling leading lady as Celie and she has a good chemistry with Joanna Francis as free spirited Shug Avery. Their voices individually are remarkable but when brought together for the scintillating song What About Love?, it's a spine-tinglingly special moment.
There's a strong cast all round but Karen Mavundukure as fiesty Sofia who suffers for not bowing down to anyone, including the white Mayor's wife, and Simon-Anthony Rhoden as her husband Harpo also stand out.
While the momentum of the drama in Act Two slows a little, the music never falters. Ultimately, it's the excellent musical score that transforms The Color Purple into a credible stage adaptation.
Drawing inspiration from swing, R&B, jazz, ragtime, blues and, primarily, gospel, the music creates an evocative and suitably southern feel. There are even African beats and influences after the interval.
The big song numbers have a huge vocal range that the cast seem to effortlessly reach, whether it's the power ballad of I'm Here from Celie, the soulful Push Da Button by Shug or the deliciously sexy Any Little Thing from a flirtatious Harpo and Sofia.
Reflecting how human spirit and love can overcome the worst adversities, this isn't always an easy watch but The Color Purple musical demands your attention.
This is a powerfully mesmerising show that will make you laugh, cry and feel soothed by the wonderfully soulful soundtrack.