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Purlie is Victorious at The Bridewell



Review by David Munro

PURLIE, the Bridewell’s new musical, is based on a 1961 comedy, Purlie Victorious, by Ossie Davies.

Toward the end of the Sixties, Davies decided to turn it into a musical and, in March 1970, the transformed Purlie, with book and lyrics by Davies, Philip Rose and Peter Udell, and music by Gary Geld, opened on Broadway, where it ran for nearly two years and then toured successfully.

London has had a long wait to meet Purlie but this production proves the wait was well worthwhile.

The book uses the frame flashback technique in that it opens and closes at a funeral, which is combined with a service of dedication at a chapel where Purlie is officiating as a new preacher.

The rest of the show illustrates the events leading up to the funeral and Purlie’s nefarious schemes to obtain the money to buy the chapel against the opposition of Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, a reactionary cotton-planter who rules his plantation and servants in a true ante bellum fashion.

Involved along the way are Lutiebelle, Purlie’s fiancée, his brother, Gitlow, and his wife, Missy, and Cotchipee's son, Charlie, who wants to be a Country Folk singer-composer.

All of whom who reluctantly, or otherwise, get involved in a scheme to claim money held by Cotchipee for Purlie’s deceased cousin, whom Lutiebelle impersonates in an attempt to obtain the money. A chorus of townsfolk and cotton pickers provide a singing and dancing background to these machinations.

The humour of the plot, as might be expected, revolves around bigotry and the 'Uncle Tom'-ism of the community, whom Purlie want to convert to a life of self-respect and full integration under his leadership.

It is, however, the brilliant score, by Udell and Geld, comprising of inter alia, rousing choruses of Gospel songs, and folk ballads interspersed with plot numbers, and a superb love song, I Got Love, for Lutiebelle, that justifies the translation of the play into a musical.

The company, without exception, do full justice to the score and the book. The opening hymn, Walk up the Stairs, introduced by the powerful and beautiful voice of Irene M. Forrester, was done with such verve and vigour that it literally almost brought the house down and set the tone for the rest of evening.

Tee Jay was faultless as Purlie. Here was a man driven by the need to right the wrongs of his fellow Negroes, and yet at the same time revenge himself for the wrongs done to him personally.

His religious fervour had a cynical edge to it which came to its climax in a scene where he describes a totally fictitious encounter with Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee in mock biblical terms.

This speech, which must have lasted a good five minutes, was delivered with such mastery that one was almost carried away by its fervour and conviction. When not preaching or conniving, he joined in the general singing and dancing with consummate skill. An altogether stunning performance.

Similarly, Joanna Francis proved an admirable , if spirited, mate for Purlie, with a strong and musical singing voice. She was justly applauded for I Got Love, which if not delivered with quite the panache of Melba Moore, the originator of the role, was just as effective in her interpretation.

She also proved to be a fine little actress, developing the part from a meek little maid into a character in her own right, strong enough to stand up to Purlie and give as good as she got.

As Missy, Victoria Wilson James gave an amusing performance of an understanding, capable but not deceived sister-in-law to Purlie. She, too, has a strong voice and her reminiscent, sad duet with Purlie, Down Home, was one of the many highlights of the evening.

Gitlow, Purlie’s brother, a cynical and devious opportunist, was in the safe hands of Mykal Rand, the choreographer who was also partly responsible for the excellent staging of the production.

The scenes with John Lyons' Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, where he exploits the Uncle Tom characteristics, reeked of insincerity, but underlined the similarity between the brothers despite the difference of their upbringing.

This was emphasised in his song rejecting Purlie’s attempt to embroil him in the scheme to extract the money - Skinnin’ a Cat.

As the only white members of the cast, John Lyons, as Ol’Cap’n Cotchipee, and David Menkin maintained their own despite the heavy opposition of the other members of the cast.

John Lyons played up the caricature of the old southern confederate Colonel, which contrasted well with the more moderate and politically-correct attitude of his brow-beaten son, making his, the son’s, final victory over his father and his outmoded views, credible.

David Menkin played Charlie, the son, with sympathy; his attempts to write a credible folk song without success were amusingly underplayed, as was his relationship with his old nurse, Idella, forcefully played by Miquel Brown .

The ensemble of one girl and three men gave full support to their principals in the choral numbers, at the same time as displaying an amazing talent for dancing which did them and their choreographer great credit.

The staging, which made the full use of the small Bridewell acting area, was the responsibility of Omar F Okai and Mykal Rand, who between them produced a memorable evening of song dance, humour and drama - one which you miss at your peril.

Purlie has arrived in London with a vengeance. Despite the advent of the forthcoming blockbuster musicals, I hope he has the long and prosperous stay he deserves, either in the Bridewell or in the West End, where he really belongs, surpassing all the opposition and proving him truly to be - Purlie Victorious.

Purlie. Book by Ossie Davies Philip Rose and Peter Udell; Music by Gary Geld; Director/Staging, Omar F Okai; Musical Director/ Arranger, Steven Dula; Choreographer /Staging, Mykal Rand; Set Designers, Kate Bannister & Karl Swinyard; Lighting, Flick Ansell; Sound, Mark Dunn.
CAST: Miquel Brown; Irene M Forrester; Joanna Francis; Victoria Wilson James; Tee Jaye; John Lyons; David Menkin; Mykal Rand; Ife Kuku; Aaron Morgan; Peter Svensson; Craig Williams.
Presented in association with the Bridewell Theatre by The Okai Collier Company.
Bridewell Theatre, Bride Lane, off Fleet Street, EC4Y 8EQ.
From Sept 7 - October 2, 2004.
Perfs: Tues - Sun: 7.30pm; Mat: Sunday, 3.30pm.
Box Office: 020 7936 3456.

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