You have to hand it to the creators of this 1970 musical: It undoubtedly was audacious for its time. Placing stereotypical African-American characters in a cartoon context, then craftily flipping the clichés to make satirical points about the civil rights struggle—all within the framework of a feel-good, toe-tapping musical—makes for an entertaining albeit peculiar concoction. It's a faithful adaptation of the late Ossie Davis' sardonic 1961 play Purlie Victorious, which was even further ahead of its time. This Tony-winning property comes across as a somewhat overrated curiosity. Davis co-authored the book with Philip Rose and Peter Udell; the score is by Gary Geld (music) and Udell (lyrics). Director Sheldon Epps' revival conjures up irresistible fun, but one wishes the book and score were better integrated.
Epps' rendition heavily relies on roof-raising production numbers, in the black musical tradition, and crowd-pleasing anti-racist sentiments. The satiric bite is lost somewhere between the scattered plot and an overdose of corn. Set in Georgia in the early 1960s—the peak of racial unrest in the U.S.—it revolves around Purlie Victorious Judson (Jacques C. Smith), referred to as a "new-fangled preacher man." This lovable con man—Harold Hill with a social conscience—enlists sweet young Lutiebelle (Paulette Ivory) in a scheme to trick the bigoted and greedy plantation owner Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee (Lyle Kanouse) out of money to build a church for a black congregation. A budding romance between Purlie and Lutiebelle is the key subplot.
The ebullient performances comprise the production's strongest asset. Smith is a captivating hero, and Ivory gives a warm and memorable performance—she's at her best in the radiant "I Got Love." Veteran Loretta Devine as sassy Aunt Missy sings and acts with aplomb. Kanouse's redneck lout is amusingly despicable (à la Dukes of Hazzard's Boss Hogg). Billy Gill radiates charm as Cotchipee's generous-spirited son—no chip off the block—and is especially winning when he leads the climactic "The World Is Coming To a Start." Harrison White and E. Faye Butler score solidly in supporting roles.
Kenneth Lee Roberson's rousing choreography and Ronald (Rahn) Coleman's vibrant music direction add to the delights. The design is first-rate, especially James Leonard Joy's cartoon-flavored farmhouse exterior. Though this Purlie is perhaps less victorious than intended, it's a breezily enjoyable romp with an uplifting message.
"Purlie," presented by Pasadena Playhouse in association with the Goodman Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 5 & 9 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. (Also Wed. 2 p.m., Jul. 20.) Jul. 3-Aug. 7 $42-53. (626) 356-7529.