Anika Noni Rose and Blair Underwoodin Purlie(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Anika Noni Rose and Blair Underwood
in Purlie
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
"The purpose of Purlie is to point a mocking finger at racial segregation and laugh it out of existence." This quote by the recently deceased Ossie Davis is included in the program for the current City Center Encores! presentation of the 1970 Broadway musical Purlie. It presumably refers not specifically to the musical but to its source material, Purlie Victorious, a play that Davis wrote and starred in on Broadway in 1961. Still, as a program note by Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel informs us, "much of Davis' dialogue was retained for the book of the [musical], and he was credited as a co-author even though he wasn't an active participant."

Davis described the play as a satire, and while it's not always true that "satire is what closes on Saturday night" (as George S. Kaufman famously remarked), it does tend to date quickly -- especially when it concerns hot-button issues such as racism. This applies to both Purlie Victorious and Purlie, the latter with a score by Gary Geld and Peter Udell. As Viertel further points out, the musical "wasn't afraid to tackle race relations in the late '60s. On the other hand, it wasn't afraid to celebrate the somewhat discomforting folk archetypes that Ossie Davis had created in his original play." The plot and characters of Purlie are quaint in the extreme, if not downright offensive, and the denouement of the plot is so questionable that any revival of the musical would surely be protested if the source material hadn't been written by one of the most highly respected African-Americans in history.

In a nutshell, Purlie concerns an itinerant preacher who returns home to Georgia with a scheme to get his hands on the $500 that is due him from Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee, the dyed-in-the-wool Confederate who owns the local cotton plantation and thinks he also owns the blacks who work on it. In terms of political correctness, I see two major problems with the show. Purlie Victorious Judson, as the preacher is called, is all flash and little or no substance -- even though he's supposedly the hero of the story. And though the $500 on which Ol' Cap'n has been sitting does eventually go toward the purchase of a church for Purlie, it's not the preacher himself who figures out how to get the money; rather, it's the old man's son Charlie, the only other white character in the show!

The fact that all of this is easier to swallow in Purlie than in the original Davis play is, of course, due largely to the musical's score. Geld and Udell did a bang-up job in finding places to spot songs in the source material and in crafting wonderful songs for those spots. The show starts with the joyous gospel number "Walk Him Up the Stairs," sung during the prologue set at the funeral of Ol' Cap'n before the narrative flashes back to show us how the hateful old codger came to his end. Among the many other highlights are Purlie's character-establishing number "New-Fangled Preacher Man"; the sweet title song and the rocking "I Got Love," both sung by Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, the young girl whom Purlie deploys in his scheme to get even with Ol' Cap'n; two soulful duets, "Down Home" (for Purlie and his sister-in-law Missy) and "He Can Do It" (for Missy and Lutiebelle); and the rousing 11 o'clock number, "The World is Comin' to a Start," led by Charlie Cotchipee.

The Encores! production has a number of things going for it. Conducted by guest music director Linda Twine, the orchestra is the best I've heard in any of the series' offerings, and the choral singing is thrilling. Ken Roberson's choreography is terrific, as is the show's lighting (Ken Billington) and sound design (Scott Lehrer). Costume consultant Paul Tazewell has come up with some fetching garb for the cast, most notably those bright blue choir robes in the opening and closing sequences, and scenic consultant John Lee Beatty has nicely framed the action with the gold outline of a church.

As for the cast, Anika Noni Rose is winningly winsome as Lutiebelle, and while some theatergoers may be disappointed that she sings most of her songs' high notes in a soprano mix rather than belting them to the rafters as Melba Moore did in the original production, others will prefer this approach. Lillias White is perfect as Missy; she and Rose really bring down the house with "He Can Do It." The dangerously stereotypical role of Purlie's brother Gitlow is well played by the very funny Doug E. Doug, who bears a striking resemblance to Chris Rock in terms of looks, voice, and mannerisms. Christopher Duva is a charmer as Charlie, and Lynda Gravátt makes the most of her limited time on stage as Idella Landy, Ol' Cap'n's cook.

Most unfortunately, however, Blair Underwood is quite bland as Purlie and often seems uncomfortable when singing. And though John Cullum -- who famously starred in another Geld-Udell musical, Shenandoah -- is just right for the role of Ol' Cap'n, he stumbled over many of his lines at last night's opening performance, even though this is an Encores! show and he therefore had a script in his hand. Cullum wasn't the only one to have such problems; several of the other principals did their own share of line flubbing. Indeed, never before in my experience has an Encores! production seemed so shaky in this regard. Perhaps director Sheldon Epps is partly to blame for not cracking the whip harder.

As was mentioned by my colleague Peter Filichia in one of his recent TheaterMania columns, a separate production of Purlie -- also directed by Sheldon Epps -- is scheduled to play in California this summer and in Chicago in the fall, with an eye toward New York. But, given the major flaws of the musical itself as noted above, I wouldn't be terribly shocked if it never returns to Broadway. So if you want to see and hear Purlie, I would suggest that you hie yourself to City Center some time between now and Sunday, when the Encores! production will end its limited run.