Tuesday, August 27, 2013

TITANIC finally docks in London

A week or so ago I blogged about the pros and cons of seeing large-scale musicals revised to be staged in smaller venues.  Well you can't get bigger and/or smaller than the Maury Yeston musical TITANIC at the Southwark Playhouse.

I had never been to the Southwark Playhouse before.  It has a seating capacity of 240 and is designed so you enter through quite a large bar, get funnelled down a corridor then into the auditorium.  Sound ok?  Not on one of the hottest days of the year when the queue to get into the auditorium to nab one of the un-numbered seats joined the scrum in the bar and all the time the temperature went up or was that just my blood boiling at the sheer ineptness of fringe theatres to get a house in?  If you don't want to piss off your audience NUMBER YOUR BLOODY SEATS.  The Menier Chocolate Factory started off like that but has now entered civilization so come on!  Is there to be *no* progress?

Added to that tsouris we had the always fresh hell of the musical theatre drama students shrieking their heads off at each other allied to the seething hiss of the aged show queen.  I wouldn't put it past them to say they knew the band on the ill-fated ship.

Although this was the first time I had seen the show performed I have always been a huge fan of Maury Yeston's score thanks to the 1997 Broadway cast recording.  The derision that greeted the news of a Titanic musical lasted up to it's opening in April with mostly negative reviews but the show found an audience and lasted for nearly two years - indeed, although James Cameron's film opened in December 1997, it actually helped increase the show's attendance rather than the reverse as had been suggested.  At award time, the show's director and cast were all ignored but it won each of the five Tony Awards it was nominated for including Peter Stone's book, Yeston's score and the big one, Best Musical. 
By far the best component of the show is Yeston's score which takes in a wide range of contemporaneous musical styles of 1912: he gives us ragtime trots, Gilbert & Sullivan pastiches, stirring Elgar-esque themes, hymns, folk airs, all filtered through a traditional Broadway score of ballads and up-tempo numbers.  As much as I like Yeston's scores for GRAND HOTEL and NINE, his TITANIC score hits greatness with it's sweep of intimate and epic moments.
The design for the show was a simple bare floor stage, a moveable metal staircase and a single upper level/balcony which you entered under.  To get to the seats you walked past Greg Castiglioni as Thomas Andrews, the designer of the ill-fated ship, scribbling away at his desk.  Despite this, director Thom Sutherland took the opening song away from him, allocating it instead to Simon Green's J. Bruce Ismay, the owner of the White Star Line who famously not only pressurised the Captain to increase speed but who also survived by jumping into a lifeboat.  This production started with the cast shouting abuse at Ismay who turns to the audience and sings IN EVERY AGE.
The production boasts a cast of 20 which is remarkable for a production this size, Broadway boasted 37 cast members.  Of course this meant them rushing off as a 3rd class Irish immigrant to emerge minutes later as a 1st class millionaire but it's to the cast's credit that they all still managed to give strong, definable performances.  There were a couple of dodgy ones - Castiglioni's important second act solo MR. ANDREWS' VISION was horribly over-sung - even if he did had to contend with a platform tipping up underneath him (maybe I have explained him not singing the opening number?)  I was also praying for Jonathan David Dudley's Bellboy to drown, preferably five minutes after leaving Southampton.
But these were more than compensated by the very fine performances which were full of character, more than are given them in Stone's good but rather spare book: Green's Ismay was superbly hissable while James Austen-Murray stood out as the stoker Barrett.  His solo number, setting up the class divisions within the ship, was excellently sung, even if he had to contend with the distracting modern dance interpretations of shovelling coal around him!  His duet THE NIGHT WAS ALIVE with Matthew Crowe's radioman Harold Bride was also a stand-out, it was almost staged as a love song between the two men which certainly added a frisson to the number.
Celia Graham was very good as 2nd Class passenger Alice Beane, eager to mix with the upper echelons (vocally better than Victoria Clark on the cast recording) and as her disapproving husband Edgar, Oliver Hemsborough delivered a strong character above and beyond what the book provided for him.  James Hume was fine as Etches the 1st Class steward and Siôn Lloyd was in fine voice as Officer Murdoch, although Stone's book propagates the unsubstantiated story that he shot himself as the ship sank which goes against what several credible eyewitnesses said.
Victoria Serra made a spirited Kate McGowan travelling to America with a hope for the future of herself and her unborn child while Dudley Stevens and Judith Street made the most of their touching ballad STILL, sung as their characters Isador and Ida Strauss prepare for death on the sinking ship rather than be separated.
These were the cast members who stood out for me but the ensemble singing was wonderful too on such numbers as GODSPEED TITANIC (a number that always gets my tear ducts going), LADIES MAID, NO MOON, WE'LL MEET TOMORROW and the FINALE.
Thom Sutherland's direction was very good given the constraints on his production and David Woodhead's design made invention out of necessity.  Howard Hudson's lighting also contributed to the show's overall success.  Although I would have loved to have had Yeston's sweeping score played by a full orchestra - as it was meant to be heard - Mark Aspinall's band of only six did well.  It was also a nice touch for the show to end with the names of those who died in the tragedy scrolling up the stage.  Indeed all the characters in Stone's book are based on real people aboard the ship although he does play God and alter a couple of fates to suit his story.
Although the show was running late, we stayed behind as - totally unbeknownst at the time of booking - Maury Yeston was actually there to give a talk with the ever-gushing critic Mark Shenton.  Now answer me this... why have the cast all head-mic'd for the show but not provide even hand-mics for the interview?  Sadly most of what Yeston had to say about the genesis of the show, his other works and his thoughts on musicals in general was *just* audible from where we were sitting - and as I said it's not that big an auditorium.  Again the cluelessness of this theatre just seemed to end up standing on my one good nerve.
But I am very happy that I had the opportunity to finally see TITANIC - and in such an inventive production - so as to fully understand how this excellent score serves the show.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Say Amen Somebody!

A few weeks ago Owen and I went to Church.  Oh,  and we went to New York.  The difficult part was that we also went back 60 years to 1953.  But the Olivier Theatre has always served me well as a time machine.  It was all so we could witness the goings on at a storefront church which is where James Baldwin's THE AMEN CORNER takes place. 

Baldwin had grown up in the abusive home of his preacher stepfather.  He became a preacher himself at the age of 14 until three years later when he became disenchanted with religious life, around the time he also discovered his gay sexuality.  At the age of 29, after living in Paris, he wrote GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, a semi-autobiographical first novel set in the Pentecostal community but, still not exorcised, the following year he wrote his first play THE AMEN CORNER.

The play is a rarity in that it features four excellent larger-than-life female characters who power the play alongside three lesser male roles.  Rather shockingly, the play has only had one Broadway production, a two month run in 1965.  In London it had a notable premiere in 1987 at the Tricycle Theatre which transferred to the West End and now it is being presented in the largest auditorium at the National Theatre.

Margaret Alexander is a self-made woman, a woman who has raised her son David single-handed and become the preacher at a small storefront church while she, her son and her devoted sister Odessa all live in the small apartment on the premises.  Although she is deeply loved by her congregation they are also cowed by her God-fearing teaching and way of life which means that she is immovable in her fierce belief that God's is the only way.
For example, Brother Boxer comes to Margaret and says that he has been offered a job driving a beer truck which will earn him more money.  But no, Margaret rules from on high that to take the job would be Godless as it's propagating the sale of the demon drink.  The best the aggrieved parishioners can hope for is that the more easy-going Odessa will try to convince her hard-line sister.
But in true Greek Drama style, just as Margaret is achieving great things in hooking up with a bigger church in a different state, her life is rocked when her dissolute husband Luke appears from out of her past.  Luke is in a very bad physical state and cannot be moved so it allows David to finally get to know his musician father, just as he is feeling the pull away from the church to jazz clubs.
While this is taking place downstairs, Margaret is facing growing dissent in the church as questions are being asked, such as where the new fridge came from in her kitchen just after the parishioners had financed her trip to the affiliated church.  This Crimplene & big hat rebellion is led by sweet-talking, steel-eyed Sister Moore who is given extra fuel when Luke tells everyone that the truth is that Margaret left him, he never left her.
Baldwin certainly created interesting characters who hold your attention and are bold, decisive figures.  Sadly his dialogue doesn't match up to these characters and his scenes can sometimes go over the same ground too many times which can be a little wearying especially if it is between just two characters.  The pay-off is also rather obvious and the denouement, after all the plotting that has gone before, seems oddly rushed.
Rufus Norris has directed the play well with the action motoring along despite the treading-water quality to some of Baldwin's two-hander scenes.  I was surprised when it was announced that the production was going into the Olivier as the play would fit perfectly into the 'normality' of the Lyttleton but actually I applaud that choice as I suspect within the proscenium arch the whole enterprise would have felt stifled.  Ian MacNeil's set design angles the action so it is close to the audience and it certainly helps open the play out from what could be quite a claustrophobic piece.
What Norris has also done is elicited excellent performances from his cast of fine performers.  As I said earlier, Baldwin has written four stonking roles for women and here they are grabbed with huge gusto by four formidable performers.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste has lived and worked in Los Angeles since 2002 after finding little progression in the roles offered to her here after being the first black Briton nominated for an Academy Award in SECRETS AND LIES.  Her performance as the righteous Margaret shows us all how much we have been missing. 
It's a very hard role: although loving to her family, Margaret is a brick wall who will not be breached.  It is hard to feel sympathy for the character but at the end - when Margaret realises that love is the way to true spirituality - it is important that the actress can touch you and this is exactly what Jean-Baptiste achieved.  Throughout the second act you could almost see her carapace being chipped away piece by piece until, confronted by the collapse of all her dreams, she is left alone but more at peace.  It's a rare actress that can hold an audience's sympathy off until she needs to let it be released but Marianne Jean-Baptiste managed it with a consummate ease.  It's a crime that she was not given the opportunities before.
As Margaret's more forgiving but equally loyal sister Odessa, Sharon D. Clarke was a revelation too.  I am used to seeing her in musical roles but here she gave us a portrait of a woman who has put her on life on hold to support her more ambitious sister and her nephew.  Another actress who I have also only usually seen in featured musical roles is Jacqui Boatswain who here gave a delightfully slippery performance as Sister Boxer, smarting from Margaret's refusing her husband to take a well-paid job and biding her time until she could help bring her down. 
But despite these excellent performances, there was yet one more performer who not only stole every scene she was in but also went through all of our pockets and took the bulbs out of the lights too.  Cecilia Noble was just astonishing as Sister Moore, a baby-voiced Judas and an outsized Brutus, dissembling sweetly while she orchestrated Margaret's downfall only to let the mask fall at the end with a hollered "Victory!" as she moves to centre-stage.  It was an audaciously funny but truthful performance that lingered long in the memory.
I would also like to mention Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Ida, a nervous young woman who comes to Margaret for help over her sick child in the first act only to appear again in the second act - just as Margaret is starting to doubt her own rigid beliefs - in a state of suicidal distress now her child is dead.  It was a performance that had to go from 0 to 100 in as many minutes and she handled it with a raw power.
The three men's roles really are just supporting parts but I enjoyed Donovan F. Blackwood as the boisterous Brother Boxer, Eric Kofi Abrefa as the conflicted son David and Lucian Msamati was a shaky livewire as the dying ex-husband Luke.  Among the supporting cast, augmented with members of London Community Gospel Choir, who raised the Olivier roof with their Church singing were Delroy Atkinson (from Ray Davies' musical COME DANCING) and Miquel Brown (Hi-NRG Queen and Sinitta's mum!)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Bourne's Beauty

Quite a few months ago I went with Owen to have my senses well and truly shaken at the latest Matthew Bourne production SLEEPING BEAUTY.

Having missed it at Sadler's Wells we caught up with it on it's subsequent tour at Wimbledon.  How good that New Adventures, after playing in a major London venue for a month and a half, still include a London date on their tour.

Despite the best efforts of the shambolic Wimbledon Theatre staff - obviously conditioned to dealing with half-empty houses for the tribute act tat that is their usual fare but go into utter meltdown when faced with a sold out show - as well as the shockingly poor audience I was in the middle of, I have retained enough of a memory of the show to blog for you, Constant Reader.

My only experience of the SLEEPING BEAUTY ballet was being taken by my school to a English National Ballet production back in the day.  Indeed my only real memory of it was the teacher's long and laborious explanation of why we had to be vigilant for the 'Rose Adagio' danced by Princess Aurora in Act 1.  In the interval she then quizzed us on it but I guess I had nodded off or was looking at something else.

2012 saw the 25th anniversary of New Adventures and with SLEEPING BEAUTY Bourne completes his Tchaikovsky trilogy after his productions of NUTCRACKER! and SWAN LAKE which have both done so much to bring ballet to a wider audience.  His version of SLEEPING BEAUTY ditches Petipa's traditional tale and gives us a darkly romantic tale of Aurora, her love for the palace gardener Leo and the other-worldly creatures who alter their destiny.

Bourne retains the basic storyline but sets the start of the story in 1890, the year that SLEEPING BEAUTY premiered.  A childless King and Queen, having sought the help of the dark fairy Carabosse to have a baby, forget to invite her to their daughter's christening.  Carabosse appears and casts the famous spell that will see the Princess Aurora die at the age of 21 by pricking her finger. 

However The Lilac Fairy and his rag-tag retinue of fairies called Feral, Tantrum etc. arrive and mollify the spell so Aurora will not die but fall asleep for 100 years.  This scene introduced us not only to Liam Mower's wonderfully characterised Lilac Fairy but to Bourne's ingenious idea of having the baby Princess represented by a puppet who garnered laughs as she scampered around the stage and even up the curtains.

Flash forward to 1911 and Aurora's Edwardian 21st birthday party which she steals away from to spend time with Leo the gardener who loves her.  However a tall dark stranger appears who turns out to be Caradoc, the vengeful son of the now-dead Carabosse.  He implements his mother's plan and Aurora falls into a dead sleep as does the whole court.
But here Bourne encountered the problem of the story's insurmountable plot flaw - if Aurora has to sleep for 100 years, what then of Leo?  Here he has introduced a great zeitgeist idea of his own and the First Act ends with The Lilac Fairy biting Leo's neck turning him into an ageless vampire.  That's got the teenage girl audience sewn up!  This act introduced us to Hannah Vassallo's spirited and delightful Aurora, Bourne regulars Dominic North as Leo and Adam Maskell as the evil Caradoc (he had also played Carabosse).
The second act takes place in 2011 as Leo enters the palace's moonlit gardens to awaken Aurora with true love's kiss but he is foiled by the nasty Caradoc again who awakens Aurora instead to become his prisoner bride.  Leo and The Lilac Fairy then have to rescue Aurora from her fate worth than death and the climactic fight to the death between Leo and Caradoc takes place in the moody surroundings of a black and red nightclub which is the haunt of the evil retinue of Caradoc. 
Will Leo triumph?  Well, this IS a fairy tale... and there was also a delightful surprise at the end of the production which guaranteed it a massive round of applause.
I thoroughly enjoyed the sheer Gothic romanticism of Bourne's reimagining, his always entertaining choreography, the excellent performances of his lead dancers and tireless ensemble, and Les Brotherston's marvellous set design and costumes.  I particularly liked the punk elegance of The Lilac Fairy and his retinue with their frock coats and distressed layers of lace and silk.  He thoroughly deserved his Olivier award nomination.  Paule Constable's lighting design also contributed towards the success of the mis en scène.

If I did have a tiny complaint it's that not enough time is spent establishing Aurora and Leo's love story.  They had one lengthy pas de deux but that was all, it all felt a bit rushed and just assumed.  This is no reflection on the dancer's who were a delight to watch but on the sometimes thin quality of Bourne's scenarios.  Oddly enough it is usually felt most in establishing the love between his principal romantic couples.
This small quibble aside, I hope there will be another opportunity to see this wonderful addition to Bourne's canon of work again in the not too distant future.  I certainly wouldn't want to have to wait 100 years.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Heaven? You're in Heaven??

Are you still resting your reading eyes from my last extra-long blog?  Apologies Constant Reader, but when I get on a roll...  I can assure you this one will not be as long as I won't have to deal with such a production as the Menier's THE COLOR PURPLE.

Earlier this year the screen-to-stage musical TOP HAT won three Olivier Awards, which I must admit surprised me so I tied up my tap shoes and clacked off to the Aldwych Theatre.

One of the incidental pleasures in going was a rare visit to the Aldwych, one of London's most historically important theatres that has become a dumping ground for long-running screen-to-stage musicals like FAME and DIRTY DANCING, productions I would not be caught dead at.  This makes it an obvious fit for TOP HAT but how the ghosts of the Aldwych farceurs and the spectres from it 's time as the original London home of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre must sit in the gods with faces like slapped arses.
Perhaps the most famous of the Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers films, TOP HAT (1935) has retained it's frothy, deliciously frivolous charm down the years.  The best Astaire & Rogers films conform to the template of boy meets girl, boy and girl tap dance, boy loses girl, boy and girl do a romantic dance, boy gets girl.  While Fred & Ginger break up to make up, they are usually helped and hindered by a comic supporting cast.  TOP HAT reunites the stars with their pals from THE GAY DIVORCEE (which I prefer to TOP HAT): Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes with the addition of Helen Broderick.
The scripts might now raise more smiles than laughs but their marvellous performances divert you from this.  Sadly this was not the case on stage.
Musical star Jerry has come to London to appear in producer Horace's show but his loud hoofing in Horace's hotel room annoys the neighbour Dale. When she complains Jerry falls hopelessly in love while Dale assumes he is Horace as she has been told who's room it is.  When she goes to Venice to model clothes for Italian designer Alberto Beddini, Jerry and Horace follow and who should be there too but Madge, Dale's best friend - and Horace's wife.  Of course you cry, Madge is her best friend but has never seen even a picture of her husband!  Jerry pursues Dale, Dale thinks he is Horace so makes a play for Beddini - endless romantic complications ensue.
As I said this plot can be sustained on film with practiced comedy performers all kept afloat on the gossamer choreography of Astaire and Hermes Pan.  Here, director Matthew White and Howard Jacques' script manages to sustain the action during the first act but by the second act with the switch to Italy fatigue sets in and I found myself caring less and less about the convolutions of the plot as so much of it rested on the supporting cast.
Olivier award winner Jon Morrell's costumes were colourful, Hildegarde Bechtler's set was efficient but boiled down to two flats and a middle revolve and Olivier Award winner Bill Deamer's choreography was smart and inventive but seemed to be aware of itself a little too much. To be honest, it seemed at it's best when delivered by the male members of the cast.
The show came into being as a vehicle for STRICTLY COME DANCING winner Tom Chambers but he had just been replaced by Gavin Lee.  Guess what?  Gavin Lee wasn't on so we had his understudy Alan Burkitt as Jerry who gave a perfectly fine performance but one totally devoid of star quality which is essential for the role.  We all know who has played the role before so you need to Bring It.
The other male performance of any note was from Alex Gaumond as the vain Italian designer Beddini who gave a spark of style to his role but he always seemed to have the air of looking faintly embarrassed - no need to be Alex, you were also one of the few saving graces in LEGALLY BLONDE a few years ago.
Dale was played by American import Kristen Beth Williams who seemed weighed down (probably by the extra name) in the quicksilver role of Dale Tremont.  There was also a certain tart quality to her performance which always seemed to jar with the overall whipped cream atmosphere.  She did however dance very well.
I have commented before about recent productions I have seen which seem to be cast with under-whelming supporting performers.  To be brutally honest, the level of performances in TOP HAT was like a bad am/dram company on a rainy Wednesday in Rhyl.  Yes, you Vivien Parry as Madge: a performance of quite rare banality especially when set against the flimsy performance of Clive Hayward as Horace.  I am sure it was a comic masterpiece in his dressing-room mirror.
TOP HAT also won the Olivier for Best Musical, it's opposition was the other screen-to-stage musical THE BODYGUARD, a yoof musical called LOSERVILLE and a glorified Tina Turner tribute show SOUL SISTER.  Against that line-up I too would have given it to TOP HAT, but quietly and probably wrapped in an old Tesco bag turned inside out.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Big Characters On Small Stages...

Constant Reader what is to be done with Broadway musicals that were written to be staged in big theatres with casts to match but no producer wants to take the risk of staging in one such space?

You downsize of course.  Why have a big chorus when your cast can meet themselves going off as they come on in a different wig?  Why have an auditorium like a barn when you can happily re-envision it for a small space in a converted workspace, railway arch or former public toilet?  Why have a full orchestra when the score can be orchestrated for a couple of synths and a man playing bog-paper on a comb?

DEAR WORLD is an ideal candidate for downsizing.  Based on Giraudoux's THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT, the musical was written by Jerry Herman following the success of MAME as a vehicle for it's star Angela Lansbury.  Countess Aurelia is an eccentric who lives in the basement of a Parisian bistro.  Along with her equally misfit countess friends and a sewerman, she is appalled to learn that the area will be destroyed by businessmen who believe there's a lake of oil under it.  She sets about to destroy them instead.
The production, while aided by Herman's charmingly slight score, was beset by 'creative differences', the sacking of two directors and a choreographer.  It opened in February 1969 only to close three months later, although it did lead to Lansbury winning her 2nd Tony Award for Best Musical Actress and a cast recording left to posterity.  Now show queens love nothing more than a juicy flop with a Diva belting out her solos on the cast album.  The DEAR WORLD cast recording has amassed the obligatory 'cult following' but with it's flop status still uppermost in theatrical minds who would be bold enough to stage a production in a large theatre for it's UK debut?  Easy - go ickle!

That's how DEAR WORLD found itself in the ever-strange Charing Cross Theatre - the latest renaming of the old Players Theatre under the arches of Charing Cross station.  It's narrow auditorium always leaves me vaguely uncomfortable and of course any show staged there has to compete with the nearby thundering trains.  I haven't seen too many productions there but I have never sat in a full auditorium for any of them.  The whole theatre gives off the air of rejection and transitiveness which is not the best atmosphere for a light and whimsical Parisian fable.

It was all perfectly pleasant with a nice revolving bistro revealing Aurelia's luxurious basement home and nice colourful costumes for the ladies.  But all the time I was watching it I was also aware of the compromised air about the production. Oh for a bigger stage for the dance routines - hell even a bigger space around the bistro for the cast to get on and off the stage!  But despite these drawbacks I did like Gillian Lynne's brisk direction and choreography.
A more, ahem, compact stage means that any faults in the book soon become exposed.  Even with a revised book DEAR WORLD would have you believe that the bistro waitress and young hero are in love because she sings a solo ballad about never having loved before.  In a busier show such plot shorthand can go unnoticed but here I just wondered "Where did THAT come from?"  Playing to a half-empty auditorium didn't help with the book's amiable jokes getting smiles rather than laughs.  I always feel in such situations an extra tension as an audience member: I must clap louder than I would at the end of the songs just to let the cast know they are not wasting their time being there.
There is also the problem of casting: have the actors been cast because they are the best for the role - or because they were all they could get?  Harsh I know, but when you look through the programme and all you see are performers who have done tours and understudy jobs you do begin to despair.

Although this production had these problems - and the additional of the dreaded loveable/punchable 'mute character - I did enjoy Katy Treharne as waitress Nina, she sang her afore-mentioned solo nicely.  Annabel Leventon and Rebecca Lock as Aurelia's equally cracked friends didn't overplay the grotesquerie and earned most of the laughs going.  Paul Nicholas was surprisingly good as the philosophical Sewerman who knows the world is going to ruin by the rubbish he finds.  It was very odd to see his subdued performance and think of 'Cousin Kevin' from TOMMY and the jiggly eejit in the white suit who sang 'Dancing With The Captain' on Top of The Pops!
Of course any show that is constructed as a star vehicle needs a star.  Luckily - somehow - this rather hole-in-the-arches production had bona-fide Broadway star Betty Buckley playing Countess Aurelia.  While DEAR WORLD was limping onto the Broadway stage in 1969, Betty Buckley was starring in London in Bacharach and David's musical PROMISES PROMISES at the Prince of Wales and was now back again after 44 years, albeit with the odd cabaret appearance betwixt times.

I first saw her in her film debut as the sympathetic gym teacher in CARRIE and then through the cast recording of THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD in which she 'Edwin'.  I was also aware of her version of 'Memory' as she was Broadway's original Grizabella in CATS which might explain why Trevor Nunn was in the audience.  Seeing him reminded me of Buckley's appearance in the documentary BROADWAY: THE GOLDEN AGE recalling the exhaustive auditions she went through to get it.

It is a tribute to her professionalism that despite the half-empty house and reduced production, she gave an exquisitely charismatic performance.  Not a barnstorming Diva turn but true to the character and perfectly judged for the production she was in.  Her performance of the Countess' cri de coeur "I Don't Want To Know" was particularly moving.  It was a pleasure to finally see her in a proper show.  But it was not a big surprise to later hear that the show closed two weeks early.
What is important when downsizing a big show to a more intimate space is to have a vision and that's exactly what John Doyle had done with the Menier Chocolate Factory's production of THE COLOR PURPLE.
I was in two minds about seeing it as when it appeared on Broadway in 2005 it seemed to be just a big vanity project for Oprah Winfrey and I couldn't see what value it would have here.  I had read Alice Walker's novel back in the day as well as seeing the Spielberg screen adaptation which apart from some fine performances was like all the rainy Sundays in your life put together.  But for want of something to see I booked.
John Doyle was lauded for his 2004 scaled-down version of SWEENEY TODD where the cast played the instruments too.  "How visionary" the critics cried, to which I replied "How cheap"!  He worked at the Watermill Theatre Newbury for God's sake - like they can afford an orchestra!  However he delivered a good production of Sondheim's ROAD SHOW at the Menier - with actual musicians! - and with Nicola Hughes and Christopher Colquhoun in the cast I decided to give it a go.
The first surprise was to find the Menier auditorium reconfigured again.  Instead of the proscenium for MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG we had a thrust stage with seating at the sides and end.  Doyle is also the set designer and his stage is of bare, clapboard which immediately suggested country shacks and a number of wooden chairs hanging on the back wall.  Clean, economic, perfect.  The costumes are by reliable Matthew Wright, using pale, earthy colours until the arrival of blues singer Shug Avery when we get a splash of colour.
Marsha Norman had the tough job of adapting Alice Walker's novel with it's large number of characters and plot threads.  In pairing it back to keep our focus on the heroine Celie, her book skips over the plot like a hard-flung pebble which can only result in some drastic telescoping of character's timelines - we are introduced to Sofia and about 20 minutes later she has five children!  Sofia's brutal beating also is incorporated into a musical sequence and feels perfunctory.  

Celie and Nettie are sisters who support each other in their stepfather's joyless home.  Teenage Celie has had two children by her stepfather who has taken them both away from her. The stepfather refuses Mister's offer of marry Nettie and instead palms him off with Celie and a cow. Celie moves into Mister's equally joyless home and is distraught when Nettie vanishes after spurning Mister's advances.  Celie, thinking Nettie dead, is resigned to a life of drudgery alleviated by her friendship with the no-nonsense Sofia, wife of Harpo who is Mister's kind-hearted son.
Celie's salvation comes in the unlikely shape of blues singer Shug Avery.  Self-assertive and confident, she is a force of nature who even Mister can't control.  While staying in Mister's house, Shug and Celie are slowly drawn into a relationship which allows Celie to experience joy and love for the first time.  Shug also gives Celie letters that Mister has been hiding, they are from Nettie who has written constantly over the years revealing that not only is she is teaching with a missionary couple in Africa, but the couple also adopted Celie's two illegitimate children.  And that's all just the first half!

The ever-present music is composed by three accomplished songwriters: Brenda Russell ("Get Here"; "Piano In The Dark"), Allee Willis ("What Have I Done To Deserve This"; "Boogie Wonderland") and Stephen Bray ("Into The Groove; "Express Yourself") and it is a very tuneful score, notably using various styles of black music: spiritual, gospel, rolling blues, jazzy up-tempo numbers integrated into the more generic show tunes.

The score has been skilfully supervised by Menier favourite Catherine Jayes and is played by the eight piece band in a stripped-down style which suits the whole direction of Doyle's production.  This is also carried on through Ann Yee's lucid choreography which shows off the ensemble very well.  Speaking of the ensemble leads me onto the cast of seventeen which while being quite a big number by Menier standards is exactly half the size of the original Broadway cast!  Take it from me they sound better than the Broadway cast.

They are collectively splendid, singing in excellent voice with great timing and each has an individual quality rare these days.  You really get the feeling that Doyle has taken time over the casting.  Particular standouts are Sophia Nomvete as no-nonsense Sofia, Adebayo Bolaji as Harpo, caught between the rock of Sofia and the hard place of his tyrannical father and Lakesha Cammock as Squeak who takes up with Harpo when Sofia leaves him.  Abiona Omonua as Nettie was also fine although again Norman's book doesn't allow enough space for the reuniting of the sisters which should be the emotional g-spot of the evening.
In the difficult role of Mister, who has to go through a character volte-face towards the end, Christopher Colquhoun was charismatic and suggested the deeper hurt in Mister that made him the man he is long before the script demands it of him.  The role of Shug Avery needs an actress who can give the production a jolt of pure energy and justify the big build-up her character gets, as well as have a range that goes from gimlet-eyed brassiness to tender and loving.  The wonderful Nicola Hughes gives all that and more, she performs with a radiant energy that dazzles.  

The role of Celie is the glue that binds all the elements together. She is rarely offstage and grows up on it but, and most importantly, has to be able to convince the audience of the hidden passion and determination that flares up in the second half.  A self-pitying performance by the actress cast would make the evening a very long night.
Cynthia Erivo plays Celie with a quiet watchfulness that suits the character perfectly.  Her mask-like demeanour covers every slight, every insult thrown at her, every deprivation suffered.  Her stoicism raises laughs in the scene where she talks to Shug for the first time and says straight-faced that until Shug arrived she never realised her husband had a Christian name.  Erivo plays Celie's blossoming into a woman capable of loving and being loved with a simplicity which is truly touching and, in the important scene when she finally stands up to Mister, turns up the power so effortlessly that it's breath-taking. 

When Shug leaves her for a second time to take up with a teenage musician, Erivo plays Celie's refusal to be left behind with a righteous determination which leads into her eleven o'clock solo 'I'm Here' where Celie understands that she can finally stand on her own.  Cynthia Erivo takes what on paper sounds like a standard self-justifying ballad and turned it into a tour-de-force that was all the more thrilling to be sung on an empty stage in such an intimate space - you could feel the energy pouring out of her.  Constant Reader, what I think I'm trying to impart is that she sang the arse out of it and she deserved every clap of the thunderous ovation it received.

By the end there wasn't a dry eye in the house nor a seat left sat in when the cast took their bows.  The wearying Pavlovian response in audiences now to stand to applaud even the fire curtain is truly annoying but every so often you see a company who deserve to know how good they are.  This is such a cast and this is such a production.

It is sold out at the Menier until it's last night on September 14th - If ever a show cried out for a transfer it is this one.