Does The Color Purple have something of a cult following? By the time I caught wind of the Menier Chocolate Factory production in 2013, I couldn’t go as the rest of the run had sold out. This concert form, presented as a one-off charity gala performance, could probably have sold out the 2,286 seat London Palladium, let alone the 950 seat Cadogan Hall, such was the demand (and disappointment) for tickets. Judging by this performance, laying aside the usual technical hitches that have a tendency to creep into ‘one night only’ events, it’s easy to see why.
The variation in musical numbers is considerable, ranging from the high-octane opening number, simply called ‘Opening’ in this show’s programme (though the 2015 Broadway Cast Recording has it down more aptly as ‘Opening/Mysterious Ways’), a gospel number steeped in black evangelical church tradition, to ballads like ‘What About Love?’ and ‘Too Beautiful For Words’. Both the band, directed by James Taylor, and the cast, led by Marisha Wallace as Celie, glided through the different styles seemingly effortlessly.
The penultimate number, ‘I’m Here’, had the majority of the audience on their feet, making another one almost inevitable at curtain call. Sometimes, these standing ovations seem overblown – here, on both occasions, it was well deserved. This was a performance that, pardon the expression, took me to church.
Not that I raised my hands in the air and hollered, “Hallelujah!” – I left that to the ensemble, which palpably moved and sounded like a gospel choir. If they had been in robes, they would have looked like one too.
This is a gritty and often gloomy tale, thanks to a whole host of things that occur to Celie, most notably various forms of abusive behaviour including crimes against the person. (It is not, being set in the early twentieth century, about the transatlantic slave trade.) As a result, the more hopeful moments are all the more memorable. Rachel John’s Shug Avery, a sassy jazz singer, is well developed as a character, an unlikely source of meaningful love and self-confidence for Celie. She also provides some comic relief, and rather like jazz in its proper form, doesn’t play by the rules. Meanwhile, a trio of ‘church ladies’ (Bernadette Bangura, Rochelle Jackman and Krishana Parker) acted as a sort of Greek chorus. Elsewhere, a difference between American and British English had me chuckling – for some reason it took a while before I realised a repeated reference to ‘pants’ was actually referring to trousers.
Anyway, also worthy of mention is Wendy Mae Brown’s Sofia, an independently minded lady. Brown brought a mixture of hilarity and sincerity to the stage, in much the same way as I recall from seeing her performance as Oda Mae in a touring production of Ghost the Musical. Tyrone Huntley’s Harpo was suitably fresh, eager and vibrant; Huntley’s sheer stage presence was an utter delight.
The acoustics, not being entirely perfect, meant some of the more rapidly delivered punchlines and putdowns were difficult to decipher. It was still possible to follow what was happening, despite few props and an almost complete lack of set.
Wallace’s acting was simply extraordinary: if a picture paints a thousand words, her facial expressions said even more than her words did. She clearly didn’t expect the audience to react as we did after the ’11 o’clock number’; palpably moved, it took an extra moment before the concert could proceed. And judging by the exit poll reactions of others, there’s demand for a full-scale revival (pardon the evangelical pun) of this powerfully moving story. The Color Purple in Concert was no shrinking violet. This was a bold and beautiful production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The Color Purple tells the inspiring and unforgettable story of a woman who, through love, finds the strength to triumph over adversity and discover her unique voice in the world.
The Color Purple is being staged to raised funds for The British Theatre Academy, a unique performing arts programme that has inspired and nurtured the talent of thousands of young performers over the past 30 years. The concert will feature a chorus of over 40 current BTA participants.
The cast featured:
Wendy Mae Brown (as Sofia) West End roles include Oda Mae Brown in the original cast of Ghost the Musical; Hattie in Kiss Me Kate; Serena in Porgy and Bess; Joanne in Rent.
Cavin Cornwall (Mister) Currently appearing in Disney’s Aladdin at the Prince Edward. He was Caiaphas in the recent Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Other West End roles include Curtis Shanks in Sister Act; Crown in Porgy & Bess; Billy Flynn in Chicago.
Tyrone Huntley (Harpo) Currently appearing as C.C. White in Dreamgirls at the Savoy. He won the Emerging Talent Award at the Evening Standard Awards and was nominated Best Actor in a Musical at this year’s Olivier Award for his Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. He also appeared in the original London casts of Memphis and The Book of Mormon.
Rachel John (Shug) Recently returned from Toronto where she played the role of Nicki Marron in The Bodyguard, also in the West End. Other West End roles include Felicia in Memphis; The Lion King; Sister Act; three years as Meat in We Will Rock You. It has recently been announced that Rachel will play Angelica in the UK première of Hamilton.
Hugh Maynard (Pa) West End roles include John in the most recent revival of Miss Saigon (nominated Best Featured Actor in a New Production of a Musical in Broadway World Awards and Best Supporting Actor in a Musical in the WhatsOnStage Awards); Simba in The Lion King; Clopin in Notre Dame de Paris; Marvin Gaye in Dancing in the Streets; Sister Act. He recently became the first black performer in the UK to play the iconic role of Sweeney Todd.
Seyi Omooba (Nettie) Currently appearing in Headlong’s Junkyard at Bristol Old Vic. She received rave reviews as Sarah’s Friend in Ragtime at Charing Cross Theatre.
Marisha Wallace (Celie) The American star of Dreamgirls, she is currently the alternate Effie at the Savoy. Her Broadway shows include the original casts of Something Rotten! and Disney’s Aladdin.
Musical Director James Taylor
Choreographer Mykal Rand
Producer Matthew Chandler
Producer and Casting Director Danielle Tarento