Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York
Book by Marsha Norman
Music & lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray
Directed by John Doyle
It says much for London's modest but acclaimed Menier Chocolate Factory that their production of The Color Purple, first staged three years ago, has been shipped back to Broadway to a rave reception. John Doyle's simple staging that worked so well in the Menier's cockpit, all stripped-back wood and chairs, has been neatly expanded to fit the Bernard B. Jacobs’ cavernous stage and the transition works well. As in London, there is no fancy gimmickry to this rawest tale of human endeavour - the strengths of Doyle's Color Purple rest entirely upon its cast and of course upon its leading lady, the diminutive English powerhouse that is Cynthia Erivo.
The tale is of the grim life of Erivo's Celie, whose illegitimate children are taken from her in an abused adolescence, who is then "married" to the most brutal of men and yet who goes on to find the most unlikely of redeemers in her love for Shug Avery, a travelling singer with few morals but a heart of gold.
John Doyle has cleverly envisioned the work. Slavery may have been abolished but civil rights remained a dream. When Celie reveals that her father was lynched, the disclosure is so casual it underlines the ingrained racism of the South. For this British reviewer however, it is sobering to revisit the show on Broadway, amidst an audience significantly comprised of African Americans. There were audible gasps at Celie’s throwaway lynching reference and where, in the UK, we only hear of America's racist troubles in the news and media, in much of the USA today racism remains a strong evil. That #BlackLivesMatter remains a powerful hashtag for the modern era speaks volumes for the troubling timelessness of Marsha Norman's book.
With an entirely black cast, the story tells of the love and cruelty that lived within the South's Black community. Yet it is the humour and compassion that shines out from within these characters that makes the show sparkle. Rarely has the term "bittersweet" been so apt.
It says much for Erivo, hitherto unknown on Broadway, that she not only tops the billing alongside accomplished headliner Jennifer Hudson, but that she defines star-quality in a rarely seen display of breathtaking energy and emotion. On stage for almost the entire show, Erivo has the audience rooting for her character.
Hudson captures Avery's bisexual irresistibility perfectly and with a set of pipes to match. And as her scarlet character merges with the blues of her singing, Hudson defines a powerfully passionate purple.
Whilst Erivo is the diva who’s deservedly crossed the Atlantic, it shouldn’t be forgotten that there was a fine company supporting her at the Menier and to be fair, the same is true here. There's another nod amongst the cast to the powerhouse of London's SE1 theatre-quarter with Kyle Scatliffe, who stunned in the Young Vic's Scottsboro Boys shortly after The Color Purple closed, taking on the role of the hapless Harpo. Danielle Brooks delivers a fearsomely feisty Sofia, whilst Isaiah Johnson’s Mister brings a redemption to his despicable character that is entirely believable. And a mention too for Phoenix Best, Patrice Covington and Rema Webb as the gossipy Church Ladies of Celie’s Georgia community. Amidst the tightest of harmonies and delivered at breakneck speed, they were never less than hilarious. Brava!
There’s talk of a Tony and rightly so. Erivo’s star may have been proudly born in London – but Broadway is sealing its place in the firmament.
Booking until 2nd October