IIt felt auspicious when the legal action looming over this musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel from 2019, involving an incendiary mix of Christianity and homophobia, was resolved just in time for its first press release.
But Curve theater’s Artistic director Nikolai Foster also pointed to the fact that this revived co-production with Birmingham Racecourse had only had two weeks to reinvent itself as a concert staged on screen. For all the jazzy warmth of the music of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, along with the magnificent singing, each voice in this ensemble is a powerhouse, hasty reimagining shows.
While there is a keen sense of musicality, theatricality and emotional drama are not there. This is a lesbian love story between dejected Celie and free spirit Shug Avery, as well as sisterhood and violence against women, but social distancing patterns seem to strip her of her passions: Celie and Shug don’t touch, hug, or kiss. and their relationship feels chaste, even more so than in Steven Spielberg’s sentimental 1985 film.
Nor does the relationship between the sisters increase in intensity: Celie and Nettie are forced to separate and spend most of the drama yearning to be reunited, but their meeting at the end feels disappointing six feet apart. Perhaps this is a story that requires intimacy, proximity, and movement to bring it to life. Without those elements, and with more than two hours of operation, it feels too long and emotionally remote.
Marsha Norman’s book also seems to blunt the sharp edges of the novel; Celie’s sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather and the marital terror she experiences with Mister is suggested or occurs off stage, rather than being fully confronted. The white-on-black violence against the indomitable Sofia is reported by her ex-husband, Harpo (Simon-Anthony Rhoden), rather than displayed, taking power away from her story.
It’s a shame, because the actors are motivated and dynamic, all adapted to their roles: Celia from T’Shan Williams has an innocent and winning exuberance and Mister is well played by Ako Mitchell. Karen Mavundukure exudes strength and cheek as Sofia, while Carly Mercedes Dyer oozes character as Shug Avery.
Under the direction of Tinuke Craig, the actors perform on a revolving circular stage. While Craig’s last production, Crave, also involved a stage twist, which seemed to have a clear artistic purpose; not that effective here. There are no sets or backgrounds to create atmosphere or add to the drama, but there are some aerial filming attempts and some instances of film footage superimposed on the action on set, such as those seen in the Sunset Boulevard production of Curve., but it is not so sophisticated and too sober.
The cameras capture the staging and zoom in on the close-ups, but the balance between the two doesn’t seem right and we lose what little choreography there is without gaining intimacy. Even as a staged concert, it feels too static. Walker’s book takes epistolary form and the letter format picks up again in the second half of the show, with Celie spending several inert scenes reading lyrics.
There are smaller triumphs: a trio of gossiping church singers who roll their eyes and perform their sarcastic comments from the sidelines. Walker’s exploration of spirituality is also tackled from Celia’s religious obedience and then her anger (“If God ever listened to a poor colored woman, the world would be a different place”) to Shug’s concept of the divine. (“God is within you AND everything else”).
These aren’t enough to knock the show off its longueurs, and it’s frustrating to see so many bright elements within the performance – the strength of the performance, the phenomenal voices – that don’t come together to become the soulful and sparkling musical that it should. to be.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism