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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Black Theatre Troupe

Also see Gil's review of Venus in Fur

TA Burrows, DeAngelus Grisby and Anne-Lise Koyabe
The 1970 Tony Award winning musical Purlie tells the story of a fast-talking black preacher in the South and his ongoing struggle with the arrogant white plantation owner who still keeps his workers enslaved, even though the story is set well after the end of slavery. While the show is very dated and the musical is a fairly simple send up of the racial types of characters of the period, the score does include a couple of moving gospel inspired numbers and the Black Theatre Troupe's production is fairly good, with some rousing performances, especially from the supporting cast.

Based on Ossie Davis' play Purlie Victorious and set in a time "Not Too Long Ago," the musical is the story of Purlie Victorious Judson, a self-proclaimed "new fangled preacher man." Purlie has just returned home to his shack on Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee's plantation with a young woman named Lutiebelle. Purlie has searched all over the land to find a woman who looks like his long lost cousin and Lutiebelle fits the bill. Purlie plans to fool the Ol' Cap'n into thinking that Lutiebelle is his cousin in order to get the $500 inheritance that Ol' Cap'n has been holding for her. Purlie wants to take the $500 to buy the beloved church that his father started. With "over the top" performances to emphasize the stereotypical nature of the period, characters and setting, Purlie plays every moment for the comical and not the serious, which helps, but the script is very old-fashioned and the characterizations are so broad that the whole show seems to always be at odds with the politically correct nature of today. Because of this, the show, which is rarely produced, really doesn't hold up very well today and is best viewed as a period piece.

The book by Davis, Phillip Rose and Peter Udell manages to humorously draw upon the clich├ęd traits and various trademark characters of the Southern plantation setting of the show, though some of the sub-plots, including Lutiebelle pretending to be Purlie's cousin, are never really logically resolved. However, there are plenty of humorous one liners, such as "being colored can be fun as long as no one's looking" and "some of the best pretending in the world is done in front of white people," which help to alleviate some of the shortcomings of the script. The score, with lyrics by Udell and music by Gary Geld, features a nice blend of gospel and traditional musical theatre songs, including two big solos for Lutiebelle, rousing numbers for the whole cast and several character driven duets.

The Black Theatre Troupe production features a fairly sparse set design, which is fine since the musical itself doesn't call for anything overly elaborate, but the greatly reduced four-piece band somewhat diminishes the exuberance of the score. Fortunately, the majority of the cast deliver high energy performances which helps to somewhat offset the dated nature of the script. T.A. Burrows is energetic and inspiring as Purlie. He is engaging, and easily gets across the man who is always preaching and is a big talker, but has an even bigger ego. Anne-Lise Koyabe manages to make Lutiebelle appropriately Insecure and demure, with her eyes continually cast downward and her seemingly sincere comments about how she doesn't believe she is pretty. While they both instill their songs with some realism and emotion, Koyabe's voice, though loud and forceful, doesn't seem to always connect with the lyrics of the song, especially in "I Got Love," which should be a song about self-discovery, but instead just comes across as a "by the numbers" performance with little meaning. Koyabe's voice is also sometimes off key and rangy, especially in her sustained higher notes, and you never really believe that she is in love with Purlie or truly as innocent as she is supposed to be.

Fortunately, the supporting cast is pretty stellar. Wayne Peck wrings every stereotypical trait out of the crotchety, racist and bigoted Ol' Cap'n. From his flawless Southern accent to his droll delivery, Peck is just about perfect. Likewise, Robert L. Body and DeAngelus Grisby as Gitlow and Missy, Purlie's brother and sister-in-law, are superb. They both give their characters so many appropriate comical traits that you miss them when they aren't on stage. Grisby makes Missy a feisty, disapproving and expressive woman, and Body has the perfect body language for Gitlow, especially when he is speaking to Ol' Cap'n. With his continual eye rolls and his head always shaking, he shows that, while he might be telling the Ol' Cap'n that he is in agreement with what he says, he is actually disapproving of everything the man does. Grisby has a nice warm voice which she gets to show off in several songs, including a grounded duet she sings with Purlie called "Down Home" and the stirring "He Can Do It" which she sings with Koyabe.

Director/choreographer Laurie Trygg does best with the musical sequences that involve the entire cast, providing them with vibrant, energetic dance steps. However, the issues with the book don't help when the direction of the book scenes is just serviceable. Mario Garcia's costume designs are effective including nice colorful dresses for the women and dark suits for Purlie. The appropriately dirty and sweat-stained clothing for Gitlow and the male ensemble show the impact of spending the days in the hot sun picking cotton, an especially effective touch.

While the show is fairly out of date, and the characters all emphasize the stereotypical nature of the people and situations of the period, Purlie still has its charms. With an engaging supporting cast that features some spirited performances and an energetic turn by Burrows, the Black Theatre Troupe's production, while mainly just serviceable, does occasionally have some effective and vibrant moments.

The Black Theatre Troupe production of Purlie runs through May 18th, 2014, at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling 602 258-8129

Book by Ossie Davis, Philip Rose and Peter Udell. Based on the play Purlie Victorious by Ossie Davis. Music by Gary Geld. Lyrics by Peter Udell.
Directed and Choreographed by Laurie Trygg
Scenic Design: Thom Gilseth
Lighting Design:Rick Holya
Costume, Hair and Make-Up Design: Mario Garcia
Sound Design: Humberto Gomez
Technical Director: Joel Birch Stage Manager: Jeff Spence
Properties: Stephanie Kelley

Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Gitlow: Robert L. Body
Purlie: T.A. Burrows
Charlie: EJ Dohring
Missy: DeAngelus Grisby
Lutiebelle: Anne-Lise Koyabe
Idella: Dzifa Kwawu
Ol' Cap'n: Wayne Peck
Ensemble: Brandon Darvance, Raheem De'Angelo, Randy Gillie, Reginald Graham, Arnett Hardeman, Kishea Morning, Jeanna Snipes

Photo: Laura Durant

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix

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