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
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
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
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’
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
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,
From Sept 7 - October 2, 2004.
Perfs: Tues - Sun: 7.30pm; Mat: Sunday, 3.30pm.
Box Office: 020 7936 3456.