THE BASICS: The Paul Robeson Theatre opens its 51st season with a musical hit from 1970. Carlos Jones directs a cast of eleven in this sweet-natured tale of the late Jim Crow South. A jazz combo of three handle the Gary Geld score. The lyrics are by Peter Udell, who, along with Philip Rose, helped to adapt the original straight play by Ossie Davis. With its single intermission, PURLIE runs about 2 ½ hours. It plays weekends at the African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Avenue, through October 7th.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Traveling preacher Purlie Victorious Judson, a glib, strutting, “Newfangled Preacher Man”, returns to his small Georgia home town in hopes of saving Big Bethel, the community church, and emancipating the cotton pickers and other underlings who work as virtual slaves on Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee’s plantation. With the assistance of Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, Purlie hopes to pry loose from Cotchipee an inheritance due to his long-lost cousin, and use that money to achieve his goals. But it’s really the Cap’n’s own, sweet and progressive, “black sheep” son, Charlie, who rises to the occasion, outwits his father, and helps usher in new and better times for all.
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: Let’s start with the Big Question: can a nearly 50 year old musical comedy about race relations in the South still work? Answer: it can and it does! Director Jones, initially concerned about laying a Curtain Up egg, apparently toyed with the idea of camping PURLIE up. Happily, he didn’t. The book, which borrows heavily from the original straight play by Davis, is as genial as ever, full of puckish charm. The black town folks, oppressed as they are, are clearly cognizant of their predicament, and even undertake, now and then, to poke a little fun at their oppressor (ie: “Great White Father”). Purlie, their new champion, is much brainer and hipper than the Ol’ Cap’n, and this is the wellspring from which all the fun and good feeling flows. Mel Brooks and screenwriter Andrew Bergman tread similar ground in “Blazing Saddles” (1974), and likewise achieved great success. It’s surely no coincidence that Cleavon Little played the lead in both productions.
Can a nearly 50 year old musical comedy about race relations in the South still work? Answer: It can and it does!
London Lee, who takes on the title role in the present incarnation, is blessed with both acting and vocal chops. Lee takes the show on his back and runs with it. It doesn’t take long for us to see that we are in good hands.
As Lutibelle, Reverend Purlie’s willing confederate, first disciple and would be spouse, Na ‘Tania Parker beguiles us with shows of innocence and affection. Her high register is a problem however; she is shrill up there, and prone to go off pitch.
As the Ol’ Cap’n, Sean Farrell gives us just the sort of crusty, racist cartoon the authors surely had in mind. This keeps us firmly planted on the high ground of comedy, away from the swamps of Serious Drama and Melodrama.
I was particularly taken by James Heffron as the Cap’n’s kind, sensitive, evolved son, Charlie (perhaps the most perfect punishment possible for this nasty old man!) After a few (deliberate and humorous) false starts, guitar strumming Charlie at last gets to serenade us with the song that is the show’s emotional and intellectual center—“The World Is Coming To a Start”. Honestly, how can you not love a show that showcases a song like this?
Debbi Davis provides some fine understated humor as Charlie’s black mother-substitute, Idella. The rest of the cast, including the small ensemble, work hard to please, and provide their fair share of musical delight. Petite Deatra Dee Paris stands out in the dance department (not this production’s strong suit).
The score by Gary Geld and Peter Udell has held up very well, and is a major reason for you to go out and see PURLIE. Geld’s music is Broadway, with nods to Pop and Gospel. The three man jazz combo at the Robeson is pretty much up to the task, but is not a great match for this type of music. As is so often the case with home grown musicals, the musicians tend to drown out important lyrics. C’est la vie.
The rustic set by Harlan is simple but nice. And there are some colorful, evocative costumes by Kelsey Jeffs.
IN SUM: The Robeson, never averse to risk-taking, has opened its 51st season ambitiously, with a lovely, landmark, infrequently staged musical, and done a pretty darn good job with it. It’s well worth a visit, especially for all you musical theater mavens out there…
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!