The major pizzazz of “Purlie,” which won Tonys for Melba Moore and Cleavon Little in 1970, stems from its vibrant pop-gospel score. All 13 songs by Gary Geld (music) and Peter Udell (lyrics) retain their upbeat vitality in a new Broadway-aimed revival directed by Sheldon Epps. This musical energy is the engine driving a book that needs updating and rethinking to fully connect with modern-day theatergoers.
Opening in 1960s Georgia with the funeral of Cap’n Cotchipee (Lyle Kanouse), a rabidly racist plantation owner, the show gets off to a sturdy start with “Walk Him Up the Stairs,” introducing preacher Purlie (Jacques C. Smith) and featuring an ensemble that spotlights the resonant voice of the Cap’n’s former servant Idella (E. Faye Butler).
Somewhat diluting the gritty musicality is James Leonard Joy’s stylized, fauve-colored fantasy set design with puffy cotton fields of yellow, green and coral as background for Purlie’s church and shack — images that demonstrate imagination but don’t suggest a sense of struggle and poverty.
Where reality erupts most powerfully is in the gutsy portrayal by Loretta Devine (“Boston Public”) as Aunt Missy Judson, reluctantly aiding Purlie’s plan to pass off a stranger, Lutiebelle (Paulette Ivory), as his aunt’s deceased daughter so he can claim a withheld $500 inheritance from Cap’n Cotchipee. Lutiebelle’s increasing affection for Purlie leads to her vivacious, though not electrifying, rendition of the song that made Melba Moore a star, “I Got Love.”
The moment Lutiebelle attempts to deceive Cap’n Cotchipee has always been problematic, since she goofs pitifully on every conceivable detail, and it’s hard to take her seriously after such ineptitude. Despite this, Purlie falls in love with her and, later, when the lewd Cap’n offends her with sexual advances, Purlie storms off to strike down his enemy.
Here again, possibly because the title character tends to be outshone by supporting personalities, Purlie emerges as less than a hero. He lacks the charismatic con-man expansiveness and humor of a Harold Hill, and when he steals money to establish his church, the audience is as let down as the people onstage.
What’s needed, and what doesn’t come across, is more convincing projection of a blazing spirituality that justifies this behavior and shows strongly that even questionable actions are sometimes required to do the greatest good.
Smith’s Purlie does deliver in the singing department with an exciting “New-Fangled Preacher Man.” He would make a stronger impression if he dominated the final moments of the show; book writers Udell, Ossie Davis and Philip Rose have handed the lion’s share of the last big number, “The World Is Coming to a Start” to Cap’n Cotchipee’s activist son Charlie (Billy Gill). Gill is undeniably endearing as the boy who opposes his father by supporting integration, but he steals too much thunder from the star of the production.
A character who climbs above stereotyping through sheer force of personality and topnotch comedy timing is Gitlow (Harrison White), Purlie’s brother, a manically upbeat cotton worker who caters to Cotchipee’s monstrous ego and proclaims, “The braver you are, the sooner you die.” White brings joy and excitement to “Skinnin’ a Cat” and “Great White Father.”
Kanouse, a huge, intimidating figure in white suit and hat, portrays Cotchipee as a cross between Santa Claus joviality and bullwhip-wielding viciousness. His approach to bitingly bigoted lines is given ugly realism by an underlying estimate of himself as a decent guy, a magnanimous Big Daddy who mistakenly believes he has some sort of genuine relationship with his subjugated black workers.
“Purlie” isn’t primarily a dance show, but choreographer Kenneth Lee Roberson brings uplifting movement and physicality to every scene — exemplifed by Derric Harris’ mid-air splits and leaps on “First Thing Monday Morning.”
Paul Tazewell’s outfit for Purlie — pinstriped pants, red tapestry-patterned vest, gold watch chain and black preacher’s jacket — makes him an attractively dapper figure.
The issues dealt with in “Purlie” still exist, albeit in subtler forms, and it’s significant that the dramatic songs — “Down Home,” “First Thing Monday Morning,” or the plaintive Ivory-Devine duet “He Can Do It” — make the sharpest impact. These soulfully directed moments clearly show “Purlie” can speak to new generations if some of the blatant, broadly dated dialogue and scenes are reconceived or omitted.