Novel by Alice Walker, adapted for the stage by Marsha Norman
Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray
Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark St, London SE1 1RU
To September 14
Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning story of the suffering and injustice meted out on poor black women in 1930s Georgia has achieved the status of a classic, yet it was only published in 1982. Three years later came Steven Spielberg's movie adaptation, which cemented Whoopi Goldberg as a star and introduced the wider world to Oprah Winfrey. Famously, the movie got 11 Oscar nominations but went home empty handed. Strangely the 1995 Broadway musical also got 11 Tony nominations but just sneaked one win. With source material like this, which is held in such esteem and which carries such baggage, adapters have trodden here at their peril.
It's heavy on plot and spans 30 years in the lives of a vivid group of characters, so finding a way to compress it all was no mean feat. John Doyle's decision to strip the action back to a bare, slatted, thrust stage with just a the odd chair for props is therefore inspired. Liberated from sets and clutter the action is fluid and we focus more intently on the emotional journey of the characters. His movement direction, aided by Ann Yee's perfectly understated choreography, is exquisitely simple and manages to evoke a sense of community and to firmly establish both place and character.
On Broadway the piece had lukewarm reception but was a commercial success with a run of over two years. Marsha Norman's book is an exemplar of concision and the score by Brenda Russell, Alee Willis and Stephen Bray is a wonderfully melodic melange of gospel, blues, jazz and funk influences. While the songwriters all have major pop credentials and can rustle up an anthemic chorus to lift a roof, they're less adept at crafting songs that do the job that songs in musicals need to do. Celie's climactic number "I'm Here" is a case in point. It starts tantalisingly with the promise of the Whitney-esque barnstormer only to dribble out, leaving a great vocalist stranded and the audience hungry. Neither does the piece ever really settle on whether it should be sung-through or not.
A star is born though in the case of Cynthia Erivo as Celie. An astonishingly confident all-rounder, she has a commanding stage presence and takes us from the introverted teen to the defiant middle-aged survivor without a hint of sentimentality. She is aided by West End veteran Nicola Hughes as the sultry saloon singer Shug and Sophia Nomvete as the proud and tragic Sofia. Celie's physical attraction to Shug - short changed in the movie - is given due prominence here. The men don't come off well here and Christopher Colquhoun battles bravely to flesh out the violent Mister, but the speed of the plot means he has too much catching up to do.
The central theme of Celie's journey towards establishing her own racial, sexual and spiritual identity is perhaps too big of an ask for a two hour commercial musical. Unlike the novel, the musical predictably goes all Hollywood in the end and we rush from a Celie who has cursed God to one who is drunk on a life-affirming joy by the finale. Foregrounding Celie's spiritual journey in this way no doubt had greater resonance in the US than it may do here, but it does the piece damage. Nevertheless, John Doyle's great achievement with this production is to find a way of connecting the audience to the soul of these characters and unleashing this in a shimmering, foot-stamping joyful concoction. This is what a musical can do and, in short, this production is a joy.