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Out of Control

Wouldn't it be loverly if we all had more control over shows like Purlie, Darling of the Day, and A Naked Girl on the Appian Way?

By New York City
Jacques C. Smith in Purlie
(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
Jacques C. Smith in Purlie
(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
My buddy Paul Roberts has this high-end video system and loves to play with it. Whenever I watch a movie with him, he'll suddenly say "The reds just aren't red enough" and start fiddling with the controls. This so maddens me that, in my last few visits to his house, I've demanded that we watch The Snake Pit, The Lady from Shanghai, and Harvey, since they're all black and white films. Still, I thought about Paul while attending three recent shows. Wouldn't it be loverly if we could turn controls and adjust certain aspects of plays and musicals to keep what we like and tune out what we don't?

At Purlie at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, I love the way that Sheldon Epps keeps everyone close to the lip of the stage. That's the way I like to see musicals done: up front, where everyone can be seen to maximum advantage. But I don't like the way Epps makes his cast play caricatures. In the musical, Purlie wants to dupe the white Cap'n who's been cheating his sharecropping blacks for years. We see a black man who's eloquent, intelligent, and foresighted. Would that every other black on stage were portrayed in the same way, but Epps keeps them awfully simple-minded. Granted, Ossie Davis, who penned the 1961 source play Purlie Victorious and is credited as a co-author of the 1970 musical, stated that he wanted to mock segregation by having us laugh at it; but times have changed, so I'd like to grab the control knobs and darken the tone of this musical. Let's have the cast take Purlie -- both the character and the show -- seriously.

Lyricist and co-librettist Peter Udell, co-librettist Philip Rose, and composer Gary Geld are all still around, so I wish they'd fine-tune the show. The current production opens, as the one in 1970 did, in the present at a rousing funeral for Cap'n Cotchipee, at which Purlie Victorious is preaching; then it segues into the past without clearly letting the audience know that it has done so. So when Lutiebelle says that she heard Purlie preaching, we have to assume she's referring to the event we just saw. (She isn't.) In a perfect world where cast size was no object, I'd spin the control knobs and add some more whites to the first scene. Aside from the dead man's son Charlie, there's no other Caucasian on stage. Do you mean to tell me that a man as important as the Cap'n wouldn't have any of his friends at his funeral?

Or take Darling of the Day, which I recently saw at Light Opera Works in Evanston, Illinois. With Jule Styne's enchanting music, E.Y. Harburg's deft lyrics, and Erik Haagensen's smart re-crafting of Nunnally Johnson's book, it's now a darling musical. Fortunately, its 1967 tryout woes are finally behind it; while the original production had a terrific leading lady in Patricia Routledge, it had a less-than-stellar leading man in Vincent Price. At Light Opera Works, however, both leads are wonderful.

Roger Mueller has a John Cullum-like crustiness as Priam Farll, the celebrated recluse of a painter whose valet dies. When the doctor who's completing the death certificate errs and assumes that Farll has been felled, Priam leaps at the opportunity to work in peace, and I mean that literally; Mueller has an astonishing moment when he's so delighted to be officially "dead" that, although he's bulky, he somehow levitates his body into the air and lands squarely on a podium situated behind him. He's equally matched by Mary Ernster as the homespun Alice Challice. The bubbly and bright Ernster gives Alice a secure sense of self. She's thoroughly convincing when she says, "There's life in the old girl yet," which she proves when she lifts a skirt to do a soft-shoe. How can Farll resist such a honeybunch? But he's slow to warm to her, and when Ernster feels that Farll's not interested, she says "I see" in a way that would make anyone's heart break. (While he wavers, I want to rush onto the stage and say, "Take me!")

But I'd like to take control and adjust everything else in the production. I'd entirely erase the chorus girl who assumes that she's Carol Channing, and the guy playing a Brit who thinks that blinking a lot creates a character, and the woman who's ridiculously unctuous in portraying an art patroness. The best direction is honest direction, but Rudy Hogenmiller has urged or allowed so many of his players to ham it up that they come across as parodies rather than human beings.

On the other hand, when I see Richard Greenberg's A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, I find Doug Hughes's realistic staging slow and humorless in a way that would have better suited Greeenberg's more serious plays Take Me Out and The Violet Hours, and his adaptation of Dance of Death. The way I see it, Appian Way is a spritely commercial comedy that would be more fun if it were played in a brittle, more heightened fashion. As it is, it's much too somber on the vast stage of the American Theatre (as I prefer to call it).

In case you haven't heard, the plot revolves around the fact that Bess and Jeffrey Lapin's adopted daughter and adopted son have fallen in love and want to marry, much to the horror of their parents. I can understand that the folks are somewhat queasy, for their kids' plans are certainly atypical; but given that the two children come from completely different parents, this isn't incest. So I would have liked it if Bess and Jeffrey had come to the conclusion that they did a wonderful job of bringing up two kids who really came to love each other. I hope that, for the next production, Greenberg turns some of the control knobs and makes this his happy ending.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]


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