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Purlie

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

How often does a full-stage, full-cast gospel number fail to stop a musical cold? Against overwhelming odds, it happens at the underwhelming Encores! production of Purlie, which is running at City Center through tomorrow.

The song, titled "Walk Him Up the Stairs," is so forced in its high-energy raving that it loses what should be its natural ability to start the show on an elevated level; instead, it begins the show in the basement, from which it only eventually (and cautiously) emerges. And, as the musical's opening number, it's only the first in a series of frustrations that prevent this well-intentioned, toe-tapping show from becoming the spirited outing it aspires to be.

But spirit in general is missing from this workmanlike production of the 1970 musical. The songs (music by Gary Geld, lyrics by Peter Udell) retain most of their insinuating power as performed by a mostly fine Encores! cast and the typically superb Encores! Orchestra, all of whom are under the guest musical direction of Linda Twine. But the direction (by Sheldon Epps) and choreography (by Ken Roberson) utterly lack energy and inventiveness, and David Ives's concert adaptation of the original book keeps the show only half a step above incoherence.

Even a show that's not exactly a classic - even by Encores! standards - deserves better, especially with a pedigree as imposing as this one's. Purlie is based on the 1961 play Purlie Victorious, which Ossie Davis wrote and starred in. The musical's book, credited to Udell, Philip Rose (Purlie's original director), and Davis, contains a significant amount of material from the original play and attempts to capture at least some of its quirky, satirical spirit. As actor and activist Davis died in February, this production should be a sharply conceived and executed tribute to a man who made important contributions to both the theatre and the world.

But many nuances have just been obliterated here. The basic story comes through: Purlie Victorious Judson (Blair Underwood) has returned to Georgia to scheme $500 out of wealthy plantation owner Ol' Capn' Cotchipee (John Cullum) in order to buy back his church. But forget about learning much about Purlie's (apparently romantic) relationship with Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Anika Noni Rose), the young girl he's enlisted to help trick Cotchipee. Purlie's brother Gitlow (Doug E. Doug), now Cotchipee's black deputy, and his wife Missy (Lillias White) are similarly underdeveloped, reduced to sketchy caricatures armed with rubber-tipped comic quips.

This lack of character definition prevents the show from being engaging (or even credible) as an integrated musical. In the first scene, none of the four songs sung connect to the action in a directly identifiable way; the same generally proves to be the case throughout the rest of the show, as well. Plot developments and characters, as laid out by Ives, are almost never granted a real sense of importance with relation to the score; too often they feel like distant cousins trying to bond at a family reunion.

This makes for a fair amount of head-scratching. The story's climax, for example, which revolves around Cotchipee's sympathetic son Charlie (Christopher Duva), is this production's most dramatically satisfying moment, even though it's almost entirely spoken. The second act opener is impenetrable in its conception, with the otherwise fine song "First Thing Monday Morning" subverted by an ensemble dance performed by men who, in athletic build and dress (Paul Tazewell was the costume consultant), look more suited to the Broadway revival of Chicago. All these jagged elements prevent this from being one of the more performer-friendly Encores! endeavors.

Only Rose, who won a Tony last year for her sensitive performance as the rebellious daughter in Caroline, or Change, can consistently connect to the story on musical terms. While her two first-act solos - the pop-ish title song and the soaring "I Got Love" - don't seem textually motivated in this treatment, she uses her beguiling, innocent spark and impressive voice to force emotions to the forefront. When she joins with the otherwise underutilized White in the second act's inspirational "He Can Do It," it's as close as this production gets to blissful.

No one else finds as much, particularly Underwood, who stokes some fire in his dialogue scenes, but has no command of the stage while singing. (That his voice lacks authority, particularly on sustained notes, doesn't help.) Doug overplays Gitlow, and Cullum plays Cotchipee as, well, Cullum. If Carol Dennis tries too hard as a church soloist, Duva contributes the subtle energy she lacks when he launches into the score's final new number, "The World Is Comin' to a Start," near evening's end.

That song, with its straightforward, freedom-embracing lyrics and simplistic repeating rhythms, captures the playful innocence at the heart of the show better than anything else in this production. It sends this Purlie out on a high note, providing the musical and dramatic abandon most people expect - or at least hope for - at musicals styled like this one. It's a shame, though, that until "The World Is Comin' to a Start," it hardly seems as if the rest of the show had been started in the first place.

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City Center Encores!
Purlie
Through April 3
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission
City Center, West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: 212.581.1212