Tag Archives: Marsha Norman

“The Color Purple” from the Curve Leicester

In his introductory remarks to this new online version of a 2019 revival staged with the Birmingham Hippodrome, the Curve’s artistic director Nikolai Foster hopes the production inspires and uplifts the audience. Taking on the task, director Tinuke Craig has achieved exactly that – 100 per cent!

Adapted from Alice Walker’s novel, the Tony award-winning musical sounds fantastic. The singing here is superb, and the score, from Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, is interesting and intelligent. Staged in the round, the play’s sensitive filming allows us to take in strong acting and appreciate Mark Smith’s choreography. Craig combines all this to give us “a story to believe in” that won’t leave a dry eye in your house.

The lead characters, with their difficult lives, aren’t easy to portray. Celie’s self-sacrifice, as her children are taken from her and she endures horrific domestic abuse, is hard to watch. But, taking the role, T’Shan Williams expresses pain and anger through song with incredible power – the range in her singing is awe-inspiring. Celie’s whip-wielding husband, Mister, is relentlessly awful, with Ako Mitchell suitably repellent in the role. Casting vanity aside, his redemption is a strong companion to Celie’s. In the scene of Mister’s breakdown, Mitchell has a raw power that is breath-taking.

Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah, Danielle Kassarate and Landi Oshinowo
Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah, Danielle Kassarate and Landi Oshinowo

While Celie’s life is full of trauma, there’s humour in The Color Purple. Plenty comes from the gossiping church ladies, a brilliant trio performed by Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah, Danielle Kassaraté and Landi Oshinowo, who have some of the most adventurous musical moments. And while the story of Celie’s stepson and his wife Sophia is troubled, their relationship contains laughs as well as passion and is portrayed marvellously by Simon-Anthony Rhoden and Karen Mavundukure – I could have watched both all night.

Handling relief in such a powerful story is tricky. But the show needs light… and colour. This is most clearly revealed in the joy that surrounds the character of Shug Avery. With yet another magnificent performance, from Carly Mercedes Dyer, the blues singer who both Mister and Celie fall in love with becomes a sage who holds the key to Celie’s future. Dyer’s portrayal convinces, while her powerful singing commands. And Shug and Celie have one of the best love songs there is.

The finale reveals how well structured the show is, Marsha Norman’s book prepares us for emotion and T’shan Williams excels in delivering it. It is Celie’s journey of self-discovery that makes the show so powerful. I had goosebumps for the last 20 minutes. Acknowledging the beauty in herself and the world, Celie comes to accept her sexuality and her religion in an inspiring and uplifting fashion that, fittingly, ends with a prayer.

Until 7 March 2021

www.curveonline.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“The Bridges of Madison County” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

It’s easy to see why talented composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown would be the go-to man for this project. His masterful The Last Five Years was a similarly simple love story that he managed to make interesting. But here the source material is Robert James Waller’s surprise best-selling book – a soppy affair of little promise. So, while the musical is wonderful and the production, from director Trevor Nunn, consistent with this venue’s high standards, the story is too thin and the show just a little dull.

In Iowa, which we’re too frequently reminded is a boring location, while housewife Francesca’s family is at the state fair, she has an affair with Rick, a photographer on assignment from National Geographic. Francesca’s dedication to her family means the romance is doomed. And that’s it – although on stage this brief encounter doesn’t exactly speed along.

A good deal of the problem comes from the men in Francesca’s life. Her husband, despite Dale Rapley’s efforts in the role, really is boring. And her lover, while initially charismatic, ends up pretentious and annoying. Edward Baker-Duly sounds good as Rick but the character is flat and the performance suffers as a result. Talk of his art, let alone his back story, grates. By the time he starts using his hands to frame a picture (which I’ve never seen a real photographer do), you wonder why Francesca isn’t planning to run away from both of them.

Mercifully, Marsha Norman’s book focuses on Francesca and the piece becomes her story. Since Jenna Russell takes the role – and is, thankfully, barely off stage – the show is pretty much saved. Russell sings every song to perfection and many of her numbers are superb. While Francesca is written as a touch too much the martyr, Russell has the presence to make her seem courageous. And she also injects some humour into the role, allowing us to warm to the character. Unfortunately, Russell is the only cast member that gets even a smile (sorry, the nosey neighbours and squabbling teenage kids don’t cut it).

With a score this intelligent, much can be forgiven: it’s a smart mix of Americana, with a controlled period feel, and delicate Italian touches indicating Francesca’s heritage. But not even Robert Brown’s brains can escape from the clichés in the story and his lyrics are, unusually, pedestrian at times. The whole piece is deliberately underplayed, which Nunn appreciates, and as a strategy that is understandable. This is supposed to be a story of everyday lives. When romance arrives, the score is lush but any heady moments are the only speedy thing here; the result is humdrum and humourless and the show ends up a frigid affair.

Until 14 September 2019

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Alastair Muir