Even if you see a lot of musical theater, there's a good chance you've never seen "Purlie." For some reason, local and regional theater companies seldom choose to produce it.
It's a shame, because the 1970 Tony-winning musical, currently on stage at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, proves to be a complete delight.
Its book is witty, its characters are fresh, its story is adequately compelling and its songs, virtually all of which are obscure, are invigorating.
The WBTT production boasts an excellent cast that makes the most out of both the book and those exuberant songs.
"Purlie" had its origins in a straight play from 1961 called "Purlie Victorious," written by the great Ossie Davis. The story's about a wannabe Georgia preacher, circa 1940, named Purlie Victorious Judson. Early in the show, he returns to his small hometown, with a plan to scam the cruel and racist plantation boss out of some money that the plantation boss has himself scammed from one of his oppressed employees. Purlie hopes to use the money to buy the town's church so he can establish a congregation.
We know the outcome from the start. The show begins with the funeral of that plantation boss, in that church, with Purlie presiding, and then goes back and tells the story through an extended flashback. The funeral becomes a celebration; the boss' black indentured servants can't contain their glee at his death, and explode into unrestrained dance and a joyous gospel number called "Lead Him Up the Stairs."
The large cast, directed by Jim Weaver and led by the charismatic Earley Dean in the title role, is almost uniformly excellent. The acting is solid, the comic timing is spot-on and the dancing is a joy to watch.
There's not a weak voice in the large cast, and the harmonies are beautiful.
Besides Dean's, some of the standout performances are those of Emmanuel Cadet as Gitlow and David Abolafia as Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee, the plantation owner. And the five-piece band sounds remarkably full.
There one big problem, and that's with the volume. For some reason the amps are turned up to 11 all the way though, even though the space is intimate.
At intermission, much of the lobby talk was about how painfully loud the show was, instead of how good it was.
Director Weaver has suggested that the reason we seldom get to see "Purlie" these days is that the dialogue about race relations has changed in the past 43 years. Maybe that's the reason, but it shouldn't matter. "Purlie" isn't a polemic. It's a portrait of a place and an era, but most of all it's a joyous piece of musical theater, full of songs that deserve to be familiar.
The WBTT production shows you why.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow him at twitter.com/martinclear.