The Lowry is home to the musical adaptation of The Color Purple this week. The Salford venue is staging the show, which received a standing ovation on its opening night.
Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel of the same name, the musical follows resilient heroine Celie (Me’sha Bryan) as she navigates familial abuse, exploitation, and loss. The dark themes of rape, incest, overt racism, and misogyny are counterbalanced with show-stopping musical intervals and comic relief in the form of witticisms. Bryan’s performance is dazzling as she pulls you into Celie’s world – tragedies and triumphs alike.
The original Broadway production, with a book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Grammy Award-winners Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, ran from 2005 to 2008. It was based on the eponymous 1982 novel and its 1985 film adaptation.
Like its artistic predecessors, it was well received, earning eleven Tony Award nominations in 2006. Its 2015-2017 Broadway comeback won two Tony awards in 2016, including Best Revival of a Musical.
This cast lives up to the high standards set by their Broadway forerunners. The spectacular score fittingly draws inspiration from gospel, jazz, and blues, and this stellar cast has the pipes to do it justice.
Despite surviving sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, having her children cruelly taken from her, and being forced into an unrelenting marriage (to the vaguely dubbed “Mister”, played by Ako Mitchell), Celie perseveres again and again as the audience roots for her, oftentimes losing hope and anticipating the worst for her fate.
The audience is introduced to the dynamite Shug Avery (Bree Smith – who The Mancunion recently interviewed), with whom Celie grows infatuated. The tenderness and nonchalance of their queerness has the audience enamoured with their affair.
Throughout the story, Celie is consistently made aware of her Blackness, her poorness, and her perceived ugliness. She meekly tolerates her maltreatment and internalizes projections of worthlessness. Her passiveness in the face of trauma is heartbreaking because, for much of the musical, she does not consider herself worthy of a better life. So, when she belts “I’m beautiful and I’m here” in act II, the audience beams at her newfound self-love.
To adapt distressing themes into a musical format without cheapening the story or undermining its depth is no mean feat, and The Color Purple’s success is a testament to the creators’ incalculable talent.
The story captures the trials and tribulations that Black women faced in the early 1900s, showcasing their grit and defiance in a patriarchal and racist American South. They empower each other and encourage one other to stand up to the oppressive men in their lives. This is especially effective for Celie, whose character development goes from docile to assertive. Anelisa Lamola as Sofia embodies the strength of women, her brazenness making her a fan favourite. The ending is cathartic, with Celie’s incessant patience and faith winning out.
The set, designed by Alex Lowde, is worth mentioning, as interior spaces and outdoor scenes are seamlessly presented through innovative design and the use of projection. This is one of the most phenomenal live performances I’ve seen in a while, and I had goosebumps throughout.
The Color Purple is not to be missed. Brace yourself for a visceral experience that will make you feel every emotion deeply – from heartbreak to exultation, and everything in between.
For the matinee performances, Karen Mavundukure will perform the role of Celie and Kayla Carter will perform the role of Doris.