The New McCree Theatre, Flint
Through March 14, 2009
Review by Heather Bonner
“If they’d cut an album, I’d buy it” was the response a friend gave after seeing “Purlie” at the New McCree Theatre with me Saturday night. I don’t blame her. The music by Gary Geld and lyrics by Peter Udell are energetic and witty, and the band and cast performing the songs are incredibly talented! But the interaction between the actors was lacking and many of the actors just didn’t seem able to engage one another in the action. It made for a strange feeling of disconnection that, mixed with dull staging by director Reuben Yabuku, left the musical performance to be one of the only redeeming factors of the show.
“Purlie,” based on the play “Purlie Victorious,” by Ossie Davis, is set on a Georgia plantation during the time of the Jim Crow laws. Purlie Judson (Johnnie Person) has returned to the place he grew up, where his brother Gitlow (Tezell Morris) and sister-in-law Aunt Missy (Billie Scott Lindo) still work, in inescapable debt to the plantation owner Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (Cliff Thurlow). All of the men and women picking cotton for Ol’ Cap’n are unable to pay back the debt they’ve incurred while working for the tyrannical man, which is how he is able to keep his workers. Purlie, sick of the virtual slavery endured by his friends and family, has a plan to spite Ol’ Cap’n.
Ol’ Cap’n is withholding the inheritance of Purlie’s deceased cousin, Bea, but doesn’t know the woman has passed. After scouring the country for a look-alike for his late cousin, Purlie brings a young woman, Lutiebelle Jenkins (Jon’Tise Samuels), back to the plantation to trick Ol’ Cap’n into handing over the $500 his cousin is due. Purlie intends to use this money to buy up the only piece of property in the county Ol’ Cap’n doesn’t yet own: Big Bethel, a church the plantation owner wants to destroy. But when Lutiebelle realizes how dangerous the plan is, it takes her love for Purlie and the persuasive powers of Aunt Missy to keep her from abandoning her role. All Lutiebelle has to do then is conquer her own nerves, which threaten to ruin the entire scheme.
Although the oppressive subject matter could easily be somewhat depressing, the clever and catchy music makes the story more upbeat and keeps the show moving forward at a lively pace. And to top it all off, the musically inclined cast was extremely talented. There wasn’t a major role that didn’t have the pipes to belt out the music with life and soul, and the chorus members blended well to create a harmonious background for the leads to play off of. It was such a pleasure to listen to these vocal artists fill the theater with such vibrant emotion. However, when they weren’t singing, the actors seemed to have a hard time engaging one another in the action. Each character felt individualized and separate from the action as a whole, and the cohesive flow that would be expected from people who knew each other well wasn’t present. Everyone felt disconnected from one another, which gave their lines a less-genuine feeling.
Part of the problem might have been how little the actors moved around on the stage. They spent much of the play pacing in small areas or standing almost completely still, singing out to the audience or to another character. Without movement to pull them away from their fellow actors, their time together onstage felt much like a stare that went on too long, as when eye contact becomes strained after an excessive period of connection. If they could have gotten away from each other—and with purpose, not just for the sake of keeping the audience’s eyes moving—they would have had the opportunity to renew those connections on a regular basis when they moved closer together again. It would have made their performances more realistic because they would have looked more relaxed and natural.
The show was handled well technically, however. Even in such a small venue, the leads were all given microphones, which made them easy to hear, and the lighting transitioned smoothly and appropriately. The stage, though fairly minimally set, was creatively designed by Leonard Nelson so that it could be readily converted from one setting to another using flat panels put in place over the walls by technicians and actors during blackouts. The band was well-practiced, not only in their music but also in their cues, and they never missed a beat. Even the pre-show and intermission music was enjoyable and similar enough to the music of the show to keep audience members in the proper mood.
It was unfortunate to feel so much distance between the characters onstage, but “Purlie” is sustained by incredible musicians and technicians who have clearly worked hard on the musical aspects and the ambiance of the show. For a funny, upbeat and energetic musical with talented performers and an engaging, emotion-driven story, this would not be a bad choice. For a character study, however, you might want to save your $15 for another evening.
“Purlie” runs February 19 – March 14 at the New McCree Theatre at 322 E Hamilton Ave in Flint. Tickets are $12 ahead of time, $15 at the door, with a discounted rate of $7 for students and seniors. Shows are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. with Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. More information is available on their website: www.thenewmccreetheatre.com.