Purlie: The Pleasures and Problems of a Dated Musical

As one of the New York theatre critics who is usually invited to see major productions after they open, I often get asked if I read other reviews before seeing a show and writing my own critique. The answer is definitely perhaps. I don't seek out the opinions of the first night press, but I don't avoid them either. And really, it's nearly impossible to get through any theatre web site without getting a sense of the critical reaction to a show, be it from the media or from the knowledgeable fans and theatre professionals who post on chat boards. Besides, I sometimes find it handy to check out what everyone has already read about a production before I start having my say. Such is the case with the Encores! staged reading of Purlie, which I caught at its final performance.

I noticed the word "dated" came up a lot when describing Purlie. Well, I would certainly hope that a satire on race race relations from 35 years ago would seem dated today. It would be a sorry world if it wasn't. But while I applaud Encores! for putting such a dated show in their season -- because there is much in Purlie which is worthwhile, entertaining and educational -- I feel like the trouble with this reading was that it wasn't dated enough.

Let me explain... Ossie Davis wrote the play Purlie Victorious on which the musical is based, while he was stage managing an off-Broadway production of The World of Sholom Aleichem and infused his piece with the same kind of folk comedy, utilizing stereotypes and broad-stroked characters in an affectionate manner. His story took place in Jim Crow Georgia and concerned a vibrant young preacher employing the help of a lovesick young lady to help him trick a racist plantation owner out of $500 owed to his dead relative; money to be used to buy back the building that was his church.

Although Purlie Victorious was only moderately successful on Broadway, running for 261 performances during the 1961-62 season, it exemplified a type of satire that was growing more and more familiar. Comics like Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx were taking negative racial stereotypes about low-wage black people and playing them for empowering laughs. When the musical Purlie opened in 1970 (with music by Gary Geld, lyrics by Peter Udell and a book that used so much of Davis' play that he was given co-authorship credit along with Udell and director Philip Rose), this sort of humor was ready to take off into the popular culture. Look at the popular 1970's sitcoms that soon followed, like Sanford and Son and Good Times. Some of those laughs may make audiences uncomfortable nowadays, but that's the style of anti-racist comedy that was popular at the time. And whether you find it funny or insulting, the fact remains that this is the style in which Purlie was written to be performed.

So when Sheldon Epps directs the Encores! cast to play in a more realistic manner, the book (condensed by David Ives) does little more than trudge along from wisecrack ("College ain't so much where you been as how you talk when you get back.") to wisecrack ("Being colored can be a lotta fun when ain't nobody looking."). Even in a moment where playing a stereotype seems required, like the Act II opening "First Thing Monday Morning", whose lyric comments on the cliche' of the "lazy black man", the production bends over backwards to show the characters as hard-working and ambitious. Although you don't expect a concert to have full production values, the costumes (Paul Tazewell, consultant) and framework scenic design (John Lee Beatty, consultant) look too clean and attractive to suggest the patchwork clothing and dilapidated shacks of the original.

But to be fair, the true mission of Encores! is to showcase scores, especially those that are rarely heard from a full orchestra, and this is where the production soared. Though Purlie's score featured gospel, R&B and Dixieland, the orchestrations, by Garry Sherman and Luther Henderson, were appropriately rooted in late '60's pop and funk. A synthesizer was used, not to replace existing instruments, but to replicate the switched-on style of the era. As is often the case with Encores!, hearing the original sound of the show was for me the most exciting and fulfilling aspect of the evening and guest musical director Linda Twine filled the room with a vibrant period feel.

And the cast did a fine, if toned-down, job. Blair Underwood was obviously going through his musical comedy baptism, and if his Purlie lacked the preacher-man verve, his singing voice was attractive and lyric-minded. Melba Moore became a star with a phenomenally high belting rendition of the show's hit song "I Got Love", but Anika Noni Rose was just wonderful in her own right singing in soprano head voice. When paired with Lillias White, in an otherwise minor role, they provided a second act highlight with a stirring "He Can Do It." Good work was also contributed by Christopher Duva in a role meant to parody white 60's protest singers and Doug E. Doug as the one character who touched upon the stereotypical folk comedy of the time. As the racist plantation owner, John Cullum is one of the few actors in New York beloved enough to get away with lines like, "I been after these Negras for years: Go to school, I'd say, take a couple courses in advanced cotton picking."

The 1947 anti-racism musical satire Finian's Rainbow went through a period where many thought it to be a racist piece because of its use of blackface to make a satirical point. And if Purlie were performed today as it was on Broadway, many would consider its satire to be racist, or at least severely dated. But even with an interpretation more suited for a modern sensibility, Encores! is to be commended for taking on this risky venture. I'd love to see some more dated musicals with luscious orchestrations.

Anyone up for a revival of I'd Rather Be Right?


Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Anika Noni Rose and Blair Underwood
Center: Blair Underwood and Ensemble
Bottom: Blair Underwood


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