If the Encores! presentation of "Purlie" over the weekend was a trial run for director Sheldon Epps' planned stagings this summer at Pasadena Playhouse and Chicago's Goodman Theater, with a hopeful eye on a Broadway revival to follow, then this frequently delightful but dated 1970 musical seems a shaky bet.

If the Encores! presentation of “Purlie” over the weekend was a trial run for director Sheldon Epps’ planned stagings this summer at Pasadena Playhouse and Chicago’s Goodman Theater, with a hopeful eye on a Broadway revival to follow, then this frequently delightful but dated 1970 musical seems a shaky bet. The desegregation of the South was a sufficiently fresh cultural shift when the show first appeared to give its cartoonish lampooning of race relations some sting. Now, however, its folksy quaintness makes it a charming relic elevated by a talented cast and a sprinkling of rousing songs.

As the ensemble, lustily led by soloist Carol Dennis, fires up the show’s jubilant opener “Walk Him Up the Stairs,” the gospel anthem seems a fitting tribute to playwright-actor-activist Ossie Davis, who died in February and to whom this production is dedicated. With original producer Philip Rose and lyricist Peter Udell, Davis co-authored the book of “Purlie” (Gary Geld did the music), based on his 1961 comedy “Purlie Victorious.” But the Encores! revisitation only intermittently reaches for those same early heights.

The majority of the uneven semi-staged presentation’s highs come courtesy of the sweet-voiced and thoroughly captivating Anika Noni Rose, stepping into the role of back country Alabama girl Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, which won Melba Moore a Tony. The feistiness Rose showed in her own Tony-winning turn in “Caroline, or Change” here blooms almost mischievously from soft-spoken, down-home innocence as her rapturous love for preacher Purlie Victorious Judson (Blair Underwood) transforms and graces the awkward girl.

Seeming to pinch herself with disbelief, Rose bubbles over with infectious joy as she declares her feelings in the title song. And while her rendition of the show’s empowering standout number, “I Got Love,” doesn’t challenge the ownership of Moore’s vibrantly belted version, Rose amply meets the song’s strenuous demands. Likewise her pairing with the estimable Lillias White as Purlie’s earthy sister-in-law Missy on the soulful ballad “He Can Do It,” which brings down the house as the two women warmly confirm their faith in the preacher.

David Ives’ pared-down concert adaptation sacrifices character development and renders the story, set “not too long ago,” somewhat choppy. Purlie returns to his home deep in south Georgia, anxious to buy Big Bethel Church and start an integrated house of worship. He has recruited Lutiebelle to pose as his cousin and help claim a $500 inheritance from crusty Confederate cotton plantation owner Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (John Cullum), who bemoans the steady disappearance nowadays of “the old-fashioned, solid Uncle Tom type Negra.”

Davis’ stated purpose “to point a mocking finger at racial segregation and laugh it out of existence” seems clear, but director Epps appears not to have received the message. While his staging is not without energy, there’s a tentativeness in evidence, a hesitance to fully embrace the satiric yarn’s necessarily broad caricatures that may be partly due to the cast performing on-book.

Doug E. Doug comes close to hitting the mark, his lanky, loose-limbed form yielding some fine physical comedy as Purlie’s wiseass brother Gitlow, whose flattering obsequiousness around the Cap’n barely masks his disdain for the old fart and “all that caucasiastic power.” In smaller roles, Lynda Gravatt as the Cap’n’s wearily jaded cook, and Christopher Duva as his alarmingly liberal-leaning son provide funny comic turns. And despite seeming the most under-rehearsed member of the cast, Cullum puts a sly spin on the contemptible Cap’n.

But it’s the lack of vitality and presence in the “New Fangled Preacher Man” that proves this production’s central shortcoming. Underwood has the looks and silky-smooth charm, even the charisma to sell the role originated by Cleavon Little, who also scored a Tony. But somehow the eloquently persuasive revivalist never quite comes alive as the story’s galvanic vehicle of change.

Underwood could have benefited from being miked much louder, a problem not confined to that actor. But while his singing voice is without major range or power, he does an agreeable job on his numbers, notably dueting with White on the bluesy “Down Home.”

Choreographer Ken Roberson supplies some languid jazz moves and the Encores! orchestra under guest director Linda Twine incorporates ’70s-style funk sounds and setting-appropriate instruments like church organ and harmonica that add to the retro appeal of the show’s jaunty gospel and R&B score. Some songs suffer, however, from the condensed book’s lack of context, particularly the plantation workers’ act two opener “First Thing Monday Morning,” a powerfully spiritual number, pleasingly sung but robbed of meaning.

“Purlie” merits recognition for having opened the door to other black Broadway musicals in the decade that followed, like “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,” “Raisin,” “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God,” “The Wiz” and, later, “Dreamgirls.” But as a proposition for revival today, its skewering of outmoded black and white archetypes seems fun but a little feeble.


City Center; 2,700 seats; $90 top

  • Production: A New York City Center Encores! presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Gary Geld, lyrics by Peter Udell, book by Ossie Davis, Philip Rose, Udell, based on Davis' play "Purlie Victorious." Directed by Sheldon Epps. Music director, Linda Twine. Choreography, Ken Roberson.
  • Crew: Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Scott Lehrer; concert adaptation, David Ives; music coordinator, Seymour Red Press; orchestrations, Garry Sherman, additional orchestrations, Luther Henderson; production stage manager, Tripp Phillips. Opened March 31, 2005. Reviewed April 1. Running time: 2 HOURS.
  • Cast: Purlie Victorious Judson - Blair Underwood Gitlow Judson - Doug E. Doug Missy Judson - Lillias White Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins - Anika Noni Rose Idella Landy - Lynda Gravatt Charlie Cotchipee - Christopher Duva Church Soloist - Carol Dennis Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee - John Cullum With: Christine Clemmons, Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, Duane Martin Foster, Danielle Lee Greaves, James Harkness, Derric Harris, Kathleen Murphy Jackson, Trent Armand Kendall, Monroe Kent III, C. Mingo Long, Krisha Marcano, Christopher L. Morgan, Darrell Grand Moultrie, April Nixon, Monica Patton, Stacey Sargeant, Carolyn Saxon, Levensky Smith, Cornelius White, Lisa Nicole Wilkerson, Kenny Redell Williams, Laurie Williamson.