The Menier Chocolate Factory’s pedigree in reinventing established Broadway hits from La Cage Aux Folles to such Sondheim classics as Sunday in the Park with George and Merrily We Roll Along is now unrivalled by any other UK theatre.
But if these successes have lately led the theatre to play it safer than it did in earlier days when smaller Off-Broadway shows such as Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick… Boom! and Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years received their British premieres there, it is upping the stakes now with one of its most ambitious productions yet, the British premiere of the expansive, expensive 2008 Broadway musical adaptation of The Color Purple, with a cast of 17 and portraying an epic sweep of personal and social history.
This is an underdog of a musical about one of life’s downtrodden underdogs – in its original Broadway incarnation it received 10 Tony nominations but only won one, for star LaChanze. Similarly, Spielberg’s film version gained 11 Oscar nominations, without winning one. LaChanze played Celie, whose progress the story charts, from a teenage mother of two children conceived with her violent stepfather who are then sent away, to being forced into a loveless, brutal marriage and kept apart from her beloved sister. The show clocked up a respectable but hardly earth-shattering run of just over two years in which it recouped its initial investment, aided by the 2004 American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino taking over as Celie.
And just as this middling, muddling rush through Walker’s passionate tale of personal survival against all the odds was galvanised in New York by its star player, so it proves again in London with the pocket dynamo that is Cynthia Erivo. She brings a punchy physical and vocal attack to Celie that combines toughness and vulnerability.
Erivo is thrillingly supported by Nicola Hughes as the sassy, spirited Shug Avery, the mistress that her husband (Christopher Colquhoun) invites to live with them but who becomes an inspiration and trusted friend to her.
But the revelation of the Menier production is how much shape, texture and fluency director John Doyle brings to the show. Though the writing and endless parade of sweetly generic gospel and pop ballads never pauses for breath for long enough to let us know the characters’ motivations beyond statements of their characteristics, Doyle and his cast fill in the gaps with an inhabited sense of life. Just as Rufus Norris achieved at the National with his current production of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, here is a story about the spiritual evolution of a woman that is strongly underpinned musically if not dramatically, but has been staged and performed to yield a rich return.
A big plus is Doyle’s own, stunning design that has reconfigured the Menier space so it feels substantially bigger, with an audience placed on three sides but whose stage has been cleared of scenic clutter apart from a collection of bare chairs pinned to the back wall that are variously employed as props.
Another plus is a taut and tremendous band of seven players under Tom Deering’s musical direction. The Menier has challenged itself and us again and the result is to turn a fairly ordinary musical into something truly extraordinary.