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A 'PURLIE' THAT'S PURELY VICTORIOUS.

Byline: Katherine Karlin Correspondent

'PURLIE'' IS ONE old-fashioned musical.

Although the show originally appeared on Broadway in 1970 (based on the late Ossie Davis' 1961 play) its heart is more Rodgers and Hammerstein than ``Godspell'' and ``Hair.''

A chorus of gals, each in a different-color gingham dress, dance with fellers in overalls. The light-as-sweet-potato-pie plot exists to catapult the musical numbers, one as tuneful and distinct as the next. This is the kind of play in which the actors freeze like statues at the end of their songs, and a young girl clasps her hands beneath her chin and makes goo-goo eyes at the object of her affection. The set is framed by a forest of fanciful trees from a children's coloring book - clearly we are in a land where nothing truly bad can happen. Here there are no throbbing operatic solos, no dark denouements, no reflexive ironies, no expensive special effects dwarfing the actors on stage: just singing, dancing and storytelling.

Hallelujah.

Although the sentiment may place it squarely in a Broadway tradition, its musical roots are in gospel - the kind of hair-raising, feet-stomping gospel we rarely hear anymore. ``Purlie'' opens and closes with the ensemble dressed for church and singing harmonies in bluesy, wide open chords that set the exuberant tone for the evening, and it only gets better. Try to resist ``Purlie.'' And if you succeed, check your pulse.

Purlie Victorious Judson is a self-styled preacher who returns to his sharecropping family with a plan to liberate $500 in hard-earned cash from the plantation boss, Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee. With the money, he can buy the Big Bethel Church and convert it to a place of worship and organizing for the cotton workers. The hitch is that his plot demands the cooperation of a naif with the cartoonish name of Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, so fresh from a white woman's kitchen she hasn't had time to change out of her maid's uniform.

OK, maybe the story is a little silly, and maybe the book, co-written by Davis with Philip Rose and Peter Udell, bogs down in preachiness in the second act (Purlie is a preacher, after all). Gary Geld's songs and the mega-talented cast make you forget all that. In the lead roles, Jacques C. Smith and Paulette Ivory hit the sweet notes of this production perfectly. Smith's Purlie is an angry young man, certainly - he sometimes coils up like a snake about to strike. But Smith exudes such decency we know he will never give in to his darker impulses. Ivory's Lutiebelle is an Olive Oyl in the flesh, all knees and elbows, and she sings her signature number, ``I Got Love,'' with a loopy adolescent charm.

If the role of Aunt Missy, Purlie's hard-headed sister-in-law, had been a tad larger, or if Loretta Devine had been a slightly less generous actress, she might have owned this show. As it is, Devine's huge gifts blend seamlessly into the ensemble. If you have ever heard Loretta Devine sing pop songs on the television show ``Boston Public,'' you have never heard Loretta Devine sing. Her voice was made for the gospel colors of Geld's numbers. No ``American Idol''- style glissandos, no growling, no shouting - Devine doesn't need gimmicks. She has a tone as pure as Dinah Washington's and a style of her own. When she and Smith sing the bluesy duet ``Down Home'' (a thoughtful rumination on whether a black man's place is in the north, or standing his ground in the Jim Crow south), time stands still. This number reminds you what the term ``show-stopper'' really means.

The rest of the cast rises to the high bar. Harrison White, as Gitlow, the last genuine Uncle Tom on the plantation, slyly channels Louis Armstrong. Lyle Kanouse chews the comic scenery as the bigoted Cap'n, and E. Faye Butler matches him as his stubborn cook, Idella. Billy Gill is goofily gracious as the Cap'n's rebellious son.

The only problem with Kenneth Lee Roberson's choreography is that we see too little of it; twice in the show, a couple of men from the chorus step forward for athletic turns that leave us wanting more. Ronald (Rahn) Coleman's musical arrangements swing between rock, blues and gospel, with some great work by guitarist Jacques Lesure.

PURLIE - Four stars

Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 5 and 9 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m. July 20; through July 31.

Tickets: $53, $58, $63. (626) 356-7529 or pasadenaplayhouse.org.

In a nutshell: Praise the lord.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Jacques C. Smith is Southern preacher Purlie Victorious Judson in the Pasadena Playhouse production of ``Purlie.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 8, 2005
Words:787
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