The program for Purlie at the Pasadena Playhouse quotes Ossie Davis as saying, “The purpose of Purlie is to point a mocking finger at racial segregation and laugh it out of existence.” And it does look like this quotation was the guiding principle behind this production. Although Purlie deals with the rather serious topic of discrimination in the American South in the 1960s, it is far from a serious musical. Instead, it’s a playful fable that takes place in an almost comic-strip world - where you can change someone’s mind by whopping them on the head with a baseball bat, a chase scene is signified by a roll on the piano and some flashing lights, and the very sets themselves look like they were drawn by hand.
Book writers Ossie Davis, Philip Rose and Peter Udell take full advantage of the freedom of operating in an obviously fictitious world, filling their show with lines that are serious and humorous at the same time, such as “The South is split like a fat man’s underwear,” or (a personal favorite) “Are you tryin’ to get non-violent with me?” But while many of the lines are smart and funny, the plot itself is flimsy. It tells the tale of Purlie Victorious Judson, a preacher who returns to the cotton plantation where he grew up, with a scheme to obtain $500 from the evil plantation owner in order to buy Big Bethel, a country church. Since the show actually begins with Purlie holding services in Big Bethel, and presiding over the funeral of the plantation owner, it’s pretty clear from the get-go how everything is going to turn out. But knowing the ending doesn’t really take anything away from your enjoyment of Purlie, it merely emphasizes that the plot is wholly secondary. It’s just there as a vehicle for the fun.
Jacques C. Smith and Company
Jacques C. Smith plays Purlie, the preacher with big dreams of making racial equality a reality. Smith doesn’t give Purlie a particularly electric charisma; his Purlie doesn’t catch your attention with the strength of his personal charm, but rather with the passion of his inspirational words. Purlie sometimes leads up to a song with a lengthy introduction, and his belief in his cause combines with the orchestra striking up to generate real excitement. The big promise isn’t completed fulfilled. Smith has a light, almost sweet, singing voice, which is strong enough to put the songs over, but not to whip the audience into a frenzy.
Smith’s lack of vocal strength is most apparent in “Down Home,” the huge first-act curtain number he shares with Loretta Devine, as Aunt Missy. Devine brings her powerful voice to the song, frequently getting audience applause for a particularly intense phrase, while Smith just tries to keep up his end. With two strong singers trying to out-vocalize each other, this song could really rock the house. Instead, it’s a showcase for Devine only.
Paulette Ivory plays Lutiebelle, the young innocent who is the key to Purlie’s plan, and who falls in love with him in the process. Ivory is the picture of teenage awkwardness, sitting knobbly-kneed and looking uncomfortable in her own clothes. But when Ivory attacks the showstopper, “I Got Love,” she doesn’t bubble over with the enthusiasm of being young and in love; instead, she allows the love to transform Lutiebelle. Choreographer Kenneth Lee Roberson gives his dance moves a Motown-inspired feel, and Ivory’s Lutiebelle swings and sways through “I Got Love” with a newfound adult confidence as though she were taking tips from Diana Ross.
Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, the plantation owner who never got the memo about the Civil War being over, is played by Lyle Kanouse. Decked out in his white suit and stuttering with impotent rage when someone gets the better of him, Kanouse’s Ol’ Cap’n is the very picture of a Southern comic villain (you’re half expecting him to complain about “those rascal Duke boys”). And, although the Ol’ Cap’n’s beliefs and actions are abhorrent, Kanouse’s open delivery of his lines and songs makes the character almost likeable. It’s somewhat problematic because we know he’s going to end up dead. Kanouse’s Ol’ Cap’n is the sort of villain who should end the show buried up to his neck in the dung heap, having learned his lesson and promising to mend his ways. The show's plot makes him evil, but he’s not quite evil enough -- and when you add in Kanouse’s charm, he doesn’t seem the sort of malevolent lowlife who deserves to end the show with everyone (including his own son) celebrating his death.
This disproportionate punishment, combined with some lengthy preaching (to an already converted audience), makes the second act of Purlie somewhat less fun than the first. When Purlie opens with Ol’ Cap’n’s funeral, the gospel-tinged, “Walk Him Up the Stairs” is exhilarating in its jubilant spirit. Although other moments in the show are certainly memorable, the show never quite recaptures the pure joy of its opening number.
Purlie continues at the Pasadena Playhouse through August 7, 2005. For tickets, see www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.
Pasadena Playhouse - Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Lyla White, Executive Director - presents Purlie. Music by Gary Geld; Lyrics by Peter Udell; Book by Ossie Davis, Philip Rose and Peter Udell. Based upon the play Purlie Victorious by Ossie Davis. Scenic Design James Leonard Joy; Costume Design Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design Allen Lee Hughes; Sound Design Frederick W. Boot; Casting Julia Flores; Assistant Choreographer Byron Easley; Production Stage Manager Conwell Sellars Worthington III; Stage Manager Anna Belle Gilbert. Musical Direction by Ronald (Rahn) Coleman; Choreographed by Kenneth Lee Roberson; Directed by Sheldon Epps. Produced in association with The Goodman Theatre -- Robert Falls, Artistic Director; Roche Schulfer, Executive Director.