This one may contain spoilers (as might all my posts).
Alice Walker's novel is famous in its own right and spawned an Oscar nominated film directed by Steven Spielberg. In 2005 a musical version opened on Broadway and now that musical has finally reached the shores of dear ol' Blighty, albeit in a new, stripped down, version directed by Tony winner John Doyle.
The Menier Chocolate Factory has gained a reputation for creating excellent work and they have done no less here.
The intimate space works wonders for the production where props are minimal and the set almost nothing bar washed down wooden boards. In this production you feel almost involved; indeed during the opening number the ensemble interact with the audience.
Simplicity is the name of the game here and the bare staging works to allow the words and music to do most of the work rather than fussy staging and choreography. Even the reduced orchestra sounds more appropriate than the larger one heard on the Original Broadway Cast Recording.
The cast are divinely selected and I can think of no one person who is a weak link. Some of the casting choices may come as a bit unexpected, if you know the film for example, but this adds a refreshing air to the roles and they still are suited to their parts. And the vocals that come out of each and everyone of the company must be amongst the strongest ever assembled in a musical. So much so that when singing as a company they gel perfectly and harmoniously, no more so than in the final (title) number.
As 'Celie', Cynthia Erivo is simply wonderful - as if born for this role. Her stillness is as powerful as her vocals and her arc throughout the performance is well defined; despite being the smallest person onstage her presence is one not to be ignored, even as her character is. The growth and development of 'Celie' is well metered and honest and one gets a sense that what is eventually freed from within her has truly been there all along, waiting for the opportunity to be seen by another.
That other is 'Shug', the woman who sees more than most, and Nicola Hughes presents her more than a free and easy spirit. She is real, earthy, honest and magnetic.
Christopher Colquhoun as 'Mister' goes beyond caricature and creates a man both terrible and sympathetic, certainly not an easy task given the nature of the character.
Sophia Nomvete reinvents 'Sofia' and gives one of the most fetching performances as she seizes the stage with full vivacity to imbue life and energy into a woman not content to be treated like others she sees around her and, when beaten down, she becomes truly pathetic and sad which makes her phoenix-like rebirth all the more impressive and believable.
Likewise all other cast members make each character their own, such as Adebayo Bolaji who makes 'Harpo' and enchanting, attractive character and nothing like the bumbling joke seen in the film adaptation.
Whilst the original Broadway production had a large, bombastic, orchestration the new, smaller, orchestration is appropriate to this production allowing the human voice to truly be the primary instrument heard. Any larger an orchestration would have sounded quite ridiculous in the small, intimate venue but, also, this new orchestrations strips away some of the musical decoration around the main melodies and gives the score an added poignancy and simplicity that speaks more directly to the audience.
Indeed this is true of the production as a whole - less is more: The slightly revised book is allowed to breath as much as the lyrics and music and by doing away with extensive props and scenery the plot and its characters are presented with pristine clarity.
It is such a shame that this production is not to be transferred to the West End although rumours of a future on Broadway and beyond have been sounded. What Broadway would make of such a tiny production, I have no idea, since most Broadway musicals tend to be large affairs. If it were to be produced in a large Broadway theatre then the production would have to be altered somewhat, so as not to get lost in such a cavernous venue, and that would be a bit of a shame since the intimacy of the production is part of its charm. That said, even a West End transfer would have necessitated some alterations (especially given the fact that the show is on a thrust stage rather than within the confines of a proscenium) but in a smaller theatre it could be made to work.
Whatever its future I just hope that this production has one!