StageArt raises the bar again as they present a superb cast and pristine staging for the long awaited Australian season of The Color Purple.
Originally staged as a lavish Broadway production in 2005, The Color Purple was trimmed and streamlined at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in 2013 before returning to Broadway late last year. The revival eschewed spectacle to turn the focus exclusively onto the characters, a move that has enjoyed great success. This Australian production is based on the updated version of the show, which receives its own original staging here in Melbourne.
Based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel and Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film, the musical The Color Purple, by Marsha Norman, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, is a joyful celebration of the strength of the human spirit in the face of oppression and adversity. In the relative intimacy of Chapel off Chapel, the audience experiences a strong connection to the characters, and the crushing blows and soaring joys of the story are keenly felt.
In a company of excellent singers, Jayme-Lee Hanekom gives an extraordinary lead performance as dear Celie. Projecting a humble yet highly magnetic stage presence, Hanekom balances Celie’s tender vulnerability with her resilient strength, winning the heart of every audience member with her open, expressive face. Producing surprising vocal power from her petite frame, Hanekom raises the roof in Celie’s anthems “What About Love?’ and searing 11 o’clock number “I’m Here.” This is a performance for the ages and is not to be missed.
Director and set designer Robbie Carmellotti makes excellent use of the space, designing a two-tiered stage with a large square wooden platform resting orthogonally on another large wooden square. This creates a natural focus for centre stage action, while also providing interesting levels for ensemble scenes. Scenes flow seamlessly, with various locations simply represented by a set of wooden benches.
Carmellotti’s casting serves the characters very well. The talented, well-chosen performers not only create a lively set of distinct identities but also appear to be imbued with a special warmth and joy that serves to enhance the overall experience. There is plenty of story to tell in The Color Purple, and Carmellotti has ensured the events transpire with clarity and impact.
Loving sisters Celie and Nettie are parted by Celie’s appalling husband, who is simply known as Mister. In a miserable household, Celie soon comes to love Mister’s awkward son Harpo, Harpo’s feisty wife Sofia, Harpo’s new girlfriend Squeak and Mister’s long-term flame, exotic singer Shug Avery.
With Nettie missing for much of the show, Carmellotti has the clever idea of having her act as the mailbox, to emphasise the fact that Nettie is still trying to communicate with her beloved sister. As the decades pass, Carmellotti trusts the strong acting talents of his cast to show aging and injury rather than relying on make-up effects.
Music director Caleb Garfinkel creates a rich accompaniment with a tight band of only five musicians. Vocal performance is a highlight of the production, and is clearly a result not just of talent but also of meticulous preparation. The vocals are boosted by three pit singers, and it is a credit to these singers (Gina Mets, Aaron Taylor and Casey Withoos), Garfinkel and sound designer Marcello Lo Ricco that these additional vocals blend so smoothly and unobtrusively. Lo Ricco engineers a sound design that would be the envy of any other independent production that thinks sound is an area where money can be saved.
Lighting is integral to the visual appeal of the production, with the rural, basic housing suggested by the wooden frames complemented by multiple hanging light globes, which also create a warm, attractive glow. Lighting designers Jason Bovaird and Maddy Seach also aid the cinematic flow of scenes and draw attention to key singers in large ensemble scenes.
Completing the polished look of the production are the beautifully constructed costumes, designed by Rhiannon Irving. The initial muted neutral palette allows performers to slip between roles where necessary. Early in act two, Celie imagines life in Africa, and the vivid, well-researched costumes here are stunning. Finally, Irving has fun creating the playfully coloured range of Miss Celie’s Pants.
Thando Sikwila shimmers with sensuality as sultry singer Shug Avery. Celebrating her voluptuous figure, Sikwila plays Shug as a decadent goddess who attracts, and tempts, everyone she encounters. Sikwila’s initial scene as the ailing Shug is convincing. Vocally, Sikwila demonstrates the range to deliver showstoppers, such as fabulous production number “Push Da Button,” and intimate ballads, such as the gorgeous title song “The Color Purple.” Sikwila’s magnanimous stage presence allows her to enjoy chemistry with each of the actor’s playing Shug’s loves.
Vanessa Menjivar plays resolutely assertive Sofia with a delightfully wicked twinkle in her eye. Sofia’s journey provides some welcome humour as well as some very moving pathos, and Menjivar takes all styles in her more than capable stride.
Iopo Auva’a adds to the comic relief as Sofia’s vacillating husband Harpo. Auva’a easily gains the audience’s affection as Harpo struggles between good intentions and male pride. Menjivar and Auva’a have great chemistry, and are rewarded with a saucy final duet, “Any Little Thing,” that would have done Ado Annie and Will Parker proud.
Anna Francesca Armenia gives another performance of great warmth as Nettie, tracing the character’s journey from sprightly optimism to patient resilience to ultimate joy. Armenia and Hanekom establish the heart of the show in their early scenes as devoted sisters. Armenia suggests a wisdom beyond her years with the compassion and insight that shine through her eyes.
Kendrew A. Heriveaux handles the atrocious behaviour of Mister with a controlled composure that indicates the actor’s separation from the character’s actions. On opening night, Heriveaux stumbled on words occasionally, but is sure to grow in confidence as the season progresses. His gracious work in showing Mister’s ultimate humility was suitably affecting.
The narrative and context of the story are telegraphed in highly entertaining style by three local women, whose judgmental eyes see all. Noelani Petero (Doris), Anisha Senaratne (Jarene) and Sasha Hennequin (Darlene) are wonderful in these roles, particularly with their achievement of making each member of the trio a distinct character. Petero also delivers blistering vocals at the top of the show as the Church Soloist.
Zenya Carmellotti is adorable as self-serving newcomer Squeak, who happily takes up with Harpo when Sofia is absent. Carmellotti’s perky energy aids her creation of this sassy role.
With the cast size of the initial Broadway production halved, each member of the company has their moment to shine in a featured role. Further terrific support comes from Augustine Tchantcho, James Ao, Guillaime Gentil, Benjamin Samuel, Tsungirai Wachenuka and Gideon Wilonja.
Do not miss The Color Purple. Book a ticket while you can, and don’t forget to take along a tissue.
The Color Purple plays at Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne until 6 November 2016.
Photos: Belinda Strodder