The greatest thrill of John Doyle’s Broadway revival of Alice Walkers hard hitting story of self resilience and humanity is witnessing the stratospheric rise to stardom of our very own pint sized powerhouse that is Cynthia Erivo. For it is Erivo’s night as she holds the audience and indeed the whole of Broadway in the palm of her hand in a truly magnificent performance of assured strength and gentle beauty.
Doyle’s directorial strengths lie in intimacy and the challenge has no doubt been great to move his Color Purple from London’s tiny Menier Chocolate Factory to the glitzy world of Broadway and the comparatively vast Bernard B Jacobs theatre. He has managed the transition brilliantly however and has walked the fine line of up sizing whilst maintaining its intimate and heart warming feel with great skill. Where it has fallen slightly is that some of the grit has been lost and perhaps a little too much Broadway gloss has been used to make this appeal to the masses. We don’t always get the opportunity to truly feel the journey that has been made by some of the characters.
The story of Celie and the abusive life that she endures is not a happy one. Her self-sacrifice to protect her sister by enduring rape and beatings first from her step father and then from the monster that she marries give her a steely determination to escape. It is in the unlikely form of flamboyant lounge singer Shug Avery that helps Celie begin to believe in herself and to fight back. With tough talking daughter-in-law Sofia leading a blazing trail of independence at her side she not only escapes the clutches of her tormentors but makes a success of her own life. The children that were taken away from her at birth following rape at the hand of her step-Father are then also reunited with the help of the sister that she fought so fiercely to protect and whom she thought to be dead.
There is a surprising amount of light to an otherwise pretty bleak story however. The sepia tones of the production give way to the warm colours of Africa during a particularly beautiful scene that follows Celie’s sister Nettie where she is now a missionary in a simple but touching performance by Joaquina Kalukango. The irresistible asides and comedic looks of the three Church Ladies are exquisitely timed by Carrie Compere, Bre Jackson and Rema Webb.
Then of course the biggest splash of colour comes with the arrival of Jennifer Hudson’s Shug Avery. Making her Broadway debut there have been some pretty big expectations on Hudson and she doesn’t let us down. Although there are times that she doesn’t always look completely at home on stage she powers through her numbers with that lightening bolt electric voice of hers. Dannielle Brooks’ no nonsense Sofia is like an unstoppable force of nature with a larger than life voice that matches her larger than life stage presence. Following a particularly brutal beating it is all the more hard hitting to see her brought to her knees and induced into silence.
But it is Erivo’s night. She is one of those rare performers that truly inhabits a role and invests every ounce of her being into her performance. There is a blissfully calm and grounded nature to her performance that reveals genuine vulnerability with an internal strength and will. Her voice is nothing short of sublime and when she belts out her show stopping number ‘I’m Here’ you can do nothing but watch in astonishment. Most astonishing of all is how she goes from belter to miniscule subtlety in a split second as she utters those self revelatory words almost to herself “I’m beautiful”. A life time of being told she is ugly and worthless has finally come to an end and it is quite beautiful to witness.