"The purpose of ‘Purlie’ is to point a mocking finger at racial segregation and laugh it out of existence” – Ossie Davis, author of “Purlie Victorious”
At the top of the City Center Encores! presentation of “Purlie,” the curtain opens to reveal actor Blair Underwood as the title character in his preacher’s pulpit in front of the Encores! orchestra and a chorus of singers in church choir attire. In the first of many short monologues to his fellow actors, he welcomes us, “Brothers and Sisters,” to Big Bethel Church, a barn house which has recently been restored to a house of worship. Today, they are there to bless and lay to rest the bones of Ol’ Colonel Cotchippe, who we later learn is our play’s villain. He urges his church, mostly made up of African-Americans, to forgive Ol’ Cap’n for his racial insensitivity and urges his followers to pray for his salvation. Then, Carol Dennis as a church soloist asks the Lord to “Walk him up the stairs.” Moments later, the entire cast joins in, and that’s where party begins. Suddenly, we’re in the midst of all-out gospel funk, and the fun doesn’t end for two more hours.
“Purlie” is by no means a musical theater classic along the lines of canonical works like “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” but it nevertheless stands out as being one of the first all African-American musicals, to be later followed by “The Wiz,” and also as one of the first musicals to have a score which integrated musical styles such as gospel, pop, and rhythm and blues. With songs by Gary Geld and Peter Udell and a book by Ossie Davis, it ran for almost 700 performances. The show, based on Davis’ play “Purlie Victorious,” aims to parody the practice of racial segregation in a small town in South Georgia. After the show’s joyous Prologue, the musical begins as a flashback, all of which leads to the points in which Purlie becomes a preacher after Ol’ Cap’n and his system of segregation die out.
No doubt, “Purlie,” a musical of late Civil Rights movement sentiment similar to “Hallelujah, Baby,” has become a dated show. However, the jokes of its satirical book still resonate. Moreover, its enjoyable score, which the Encores! orchestra grilled to perfection, as always, is worth rehearing, and it made a suitable choice of programming for the Encores! season.
As the title character, Blair Underwood has the broad shouldered physicality of a matinee idol/hero for the people. In his first solo number, “New Fangled-Preacher Man,” he excitedly makes his case to his young female companion Lutiebelle (Anika Noni Rose) about how he intends to rise above the current restrictions of southern segregation and intolerance towards blacks. Throughout the show, Underwood possesses a vitality that well suites his character and makes him exciting to behold as a performer.
Anika Noni Rose, who last year won a Tony for Best Supporting Actress for “ ;Caroline, Or Change,” is also in fine form. However, in a rather plain ingénue role, she is limited in terms of what she can do with her character. She resorts to making the most of her punch lines and tearing into her comic songs like “Skinnin’ a Cat” and more emotional numbers, the best of which is “He Can Do It,” which spunk and grace.
Also notable is the cameo performance of John Cullum as Ol’ Cap’n. Like his recent wonderful portrayal of Mr. Cladwell in “Urinetown, the Musical,” Cullum makes his turn as a villain utterly irresistible by playing up the role so much to the point of pure, unadulterated ridiculousness staying in character and properly milking every laugh possible out of his role.
Sheldon Epps, who directed the Encores! “Purlie,” is currently developing a new production of the show which he hopes will eventually move to Broadway after touring regionally. “Hallelujah Baby” was also supposed to come to Broadway in a new production by Arthur Laurents after touring regionally, and that didn’t happen. One also doubts that a new “Purlie” will eventually make it back to the Great White Way. If the move does happen, the book will probably need refashioning. As it currently stands, Act Two lasts only a bit more than a half hour, making it a rather awkward addition to a focused Act One. Still, one can’t help but imagine that an Encores! valentine to the show is more fitting for it than a top-to-bottom new production. For as a concert engagement, this production of “Purlie” was full of enough satirical musical comedy to blow City Center away.
131 West 55th Street
Music by Gary Geld; lyrics by Peter Udell; book by Ossie Davis
Directed by Sheldon Epps
March 31-April 3, 2005