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Paul Robeson's 'Purlie' offers great potential despite pitch problems

Now in its 51st season, the Paul Robeson Theatre kicks off a new year with the beloved musical “Purlie.” Set in the Jim Crow South, and written at the precipice of the Civil Rights Movement, the show is still flagrantly relevant today.

Purlie Victorious is a traveling preacher who returns home to save his Georgia hometown from a rich white landowner hell-bent on salvaging the Confederate south—a Big Daddy-type who goes by the generically racist nickname Ol’ Cap’n. He owns the land the black residents live on, the cotton plantation they work on, the commissary they shop at, stocked with rotting meat and spoiled groceries—he owns their potential in his hands and pockets. And they’re fed up.

It’s a serious, transformational moment for the town, and yet it plays as an adventure. They openly mock Cap’n whenever they can, in the songs they obligatorily sing in his honor while smirking behind his back, in the errands they run for him while exaggerating their interest. He’s a ruler without humility, without humanity, full of himself.

One of those types, you know?

The production, under the direction of Carlos Jones, mines the mocking fun in this town’s revolutionary tactics. This is a life-affirming story, with lively songs and church-born spirit.

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London Lee is a most gregarious Purlie, bursting at the seams with joy and gratitude. Lee holds this cast together in many ways, from his full-bodied singing voice, to his character’s self-awareness. He stands comfortably in Purlie’s shoes, and understands the nuances of projecting in a theatrical way.

In a similar way, Sean Farrell’s turn as Ol’ Cap’n is just as committed. They are both larger than life, but Farrell turns Cap’n’s inexcusable views into farcical satire. Rightfully so, his scenes play like political cartoons, with 20-20 hindsight and head-shaking discomfort.

James Heffron is Charlie, Cap’n’s evolved son, looking to overturn his family’s legacy and help his neighbors. Heffron handles the row capably, with a glimmer in his eye and the love of his wise-cracking mammy Idella, played by the hilarious Debbi Davis. Some might object to the notion of a white man attempting to save a community of black people, but taken in stride and context, here he is a respected comrade.

Taneisha Facey takes on the role of Aunt Missy with plenty of heart and soul, and Augustus Donaldson, Jr. easily channels the great Sherman Hemsley, who originated the role on Broadway. Both bring freshness and surprise to their portrayals.

Many ensemble members shine in their own ways, from Deatra Dee Paris’s glorious singing, to Jacquie Cherry’s spirited dancing, to John Campfield and Charles Everhart’s raucous fun.

[Read: The Buffalo News' theater guide for 2018-19]

But there are some major musical problems here. There are pitch problems throughout the entire show, in almost every song. A three-piece jazz combo, performing just off stage, is likely drowning out whatever sound mix they need to hear themselves. It’s hard for us to hear their words, too.

Na’Tania Parker gives a young, bright, doe-eyed performance as Lutibelle; she is a wonderful actress. But her singing voice is rarely in pitch and wobbly struggles to deliver Gary Geld’s soaring gospel-pop score to fruition.

As a piece of storytelling, the show is worth an attentive visit. As a piece of musical theater, it needs more legwork. On opening night, the first act pushed intermission just past 10 p.m., far too much time for such a show of this simplicity. With some tightening and vocal practice, this could be a real stunner.

REVIEW

“Purlie” by Ossie Davis, Philip Rose, Peter Udell and Gary Geld

Stars (out of 4): 2.5

Where: Paul Robeson Theatre, African-American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, runs through Oct. 7.

Tickets: Available online, by phone and at the box office, 884-2013. $30-15.

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