Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch (The Music Box)

By Harry Forbes

If there were any doubts about the wisdom of reviving Ossie Davis’ 1961 play, as opposed to "Purlie," the excellent 1970 musical adaptation, especially as the current production stars such a fine singing actor as Leslie Odom, Jr., they are quickly dispelled from the show’s first joyful and funny moments. 

For the straight version proves a very worthy property in its own right, and doesn’t even seem at all dated as many other comedies of this vintage might. Odom is completely commanding in his bravura performance as a traveling preacher trying to secure the local church Old Bethel, and throw off the yoke of the blithely bigoted Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee who exploits the black workers on his Georgia plantation.

Purlie hatches a scheme to have Lutiebelle, an innocent country girl, impersonate his long-lost cousin who was rightly owed an inheritance of $500. Lutiebelle is played by the wondrous Kara Young, who impresses mightily yet again after her outstanding comedic and dramatic turns in “Clyde’s” and “Cost of Living.” 

Odom and Young’s performances are part of an impeccably cast ensemble: Billy Eugene Jones is his obsequious brother Gitlow with Heather Alicia Simms as Gitlow’s sensible wife Missy; Jay O. Sanders is the bigoted Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, with Noah Robbins his meek but enlightened son Charlie, and Vanessa Bell Calloway the sassy servant who has raised Charlie on the right racial path. The performances are all gems.

Kenny Leon’s direction is fast-paced and masterfully balances the hilarious comedy with the underlying serious themes (unfortunately still relevant after all these decades). The production credits are all first-rate, including Derek McLane’s set which serves as Purlie’s shack, the village commissary, and then wondrously transforms into a church in the final scene. Emilio Sosa’s character perfect costumes, Adam HonorĂ©’s atmospheric lighting, and Peter Fitzgerald’s well balanced sound design. 

I’ll be anxious to rewatch the movie version titled “Gone Are the Days,” with many of the original cast including Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, which used to be a TV staple, but I did relisten to the musical’s cast album. Peter Udell’s lyrics and Gary Geld’s tunes capture the play’s characters and themes exceedingly well.

Even so, the current revival, sans musical numbers, comes across just as exuberant, heartwarming and hilarious. Highly recommended, but hurry, as the revival closes this weekend.

(The Music Box, 239 West 45th Street;, or 212-239-6200; through February 4) 

Photo by Marc J. Franklin: Leslie Odom, Jr. & Kara Young

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