It's still pretty rare to watch a theatre show where women are the main characters and even rarer to see a female protagonist whose story doesn't end in an everlasting romance with the man of her dreams. But, as those who have read the book or seen the film will know, that doesn't mean The Color Purple is a story lacking in love - quite the opposite.
Based on Alice Walker's 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning novel and adapted for the stage by Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winner Marsha Norman, Allee Willis, Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray, the story centres on a young African American woman - Celie, living in rural Georgia. Poor, oppressed and abused, we journey with her through the decades as she strives to be happy against all the odds.
Her children taken away from her and married off to a cruel bully she must address as 'Mister', her only comfort is writing letters to her beloved sister Nettie, whose replies her husband hides from her, leaving her to think she must be dead. Ako Mitchell makes a suitably horrible Mister, treating her like a slave and repeatedly telling her she's ugly, his abusive behaviour backed up by the men around him, including Celie's own father.
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Me'Sha Bryan as Celie is extremely believable as a woman who, despite her suffering, is determined to see the good in the world and to never give up in this production that calls at The Lowry theatre this week. She embodies the perfect blend of innocence and inner strength that makes Celie such a special character and boy, can she sing.
There surely can't be a dry eye in the house when she belts out 'I'm Here' - a life-affirming song if ever there was one. "I'm poor, I'm ugly, but I'm HERE!" she hits back, when Mister insults her.
The whole score is uplifting, from the jaunty 'Brown Betty' and teasing 'Push The Button' to the magnificent 'Hell No!' sung by Sofia. What a character Sofia is and Anelisa Lamola plays her with such a don't-mess-with-me gutsiness, you want to cheer.
The award for sexy sassiness has to go to Bree Smith as glamorous singer Shug Avery, with whom Celie has an affair. She perfectly portrays the jaded femme fatale.
There is humour too, thanks to the trio of gossiping delights that are Doris (Karen Mavundukure) Jarene (Esme Laudat) and Darlene (Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah). Perfectly in harmony with each other, both musically and generally, they are the light amid the shade - a light that is very much needed as this is a very emotional story and one that feels just a bit too long in the first act.
The second half is pacier though, matching the positive developments in Celie's life as she finally realises what she has always really known - that loving yourself is the most important thing.
If you want to feel uplifted, inspired and thoroughly entertained then this production won't disappoint.
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