Monday, 17 October 2016

The Color Purple, Musical, Oct 15, 2016 ***

Book by Marsha Norman; Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis & Stephen Bray
Based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel and Spielberg’s 1985 film
Presented by StageArt 
Chapel of Chapel, until Nov 6, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: ***
 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Mon Oct 17, 2016 and later in print. NB: The title uses the American spelling of 'Color'. KH
 L-R front: Thando Sikwila, Jayme-Lee Hanekom, Vanessa Menjivar

Through both song and story, the musical of The Color Purple captures the heartache and pain of Alice Walker’s 1982, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on which the musical is based.

By focussing on the life of one girl, Celie (Jayme-Lee Hanekom), as she grows from abused child to assertive woman, the narrative (Marsha Norman) depicts the grotesque violence against African-American women in the American South during the early 20th century; violence perpetrated not only by white folks but also by black men.

The musical, directed here by Robbie Carmellotti with musical direction by Caleb Garfinkel, has very little dialogue, but includes 28 songs (Music and lyrics by Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis) ranging from Gospel to blues, jazz, ragtime and African-influenced songs.

Apart from the abuse by her father (Augustin Tchantcho) and her husband, known only as Mister (Kendrew A. Heriveaux), Celie’s greatest pain stems from being separated from her dear sister, Nettie (Anna Francesca Armenia), whose letters from Africa, where she is a missionary, are intercepted for years by Mister.

As Celie, Hanekom travels a path from a timid, repressed and abused child who bears two children to her father by the age of 14 and is forced into a violent marriage, to the confident, independent woman who reclaims her life.

The pocket-sized Hanekom’s own confidence soars during the show and her voice is at its best in her final, impassioned solo, I’m Here.

As Shug Avery, the self-possessed, liberated singer and object of Celie’s love, Thando Sikwila is sassy and seductive with exceptional vocal power, range and control that seem effortless in her solo, Too Beautiful For Words, her bold ‘juke joint’ number, Push Da Button, and her duet with Hanekom, What About Love?

The singing and acting skill of the cast is uneven, but the chorus numbers are rousing with some thrilling harmonies and a particular highlight is Noelani Petero as the Church Soloist who leads the ensemble in Mysterious Ways, the stirring, opening Gospel number.

Vanessa Menjivar is audacious and funny as Sofia (played in the film by Oprah Winfrey), the impudent, young woman who bends to no man’s will, including that of her husband, Harpo, who Iopu Auva'a plays with gentle, comical diffidence.

The set (Carmellotti), comprising simple, wooden platforms, provides a flexible stage for multiple locations, but it is creaky and awkward for the actors, while the staging and choreography (Jayden Hicks) lack imagination.

This sprawling saga about Celie’s life includes some funny and poignant moments, but its highlights are the music and a few standout performances.

By Kate Herbert

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