As soon as you walk into the Calderwood Pavilion — Huntington Theatre Company of Boston’s second space — you’ll know that THE PURISTS will deal with a musical theater enthusiast.
Gerry Brinsley’s walls are festooned with framed Playbills (MAME, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC). The GEORGE M. window card and HELLO, DOLLY! long-playing record are in residence, too. The biggest poster of all which dominates the room is, of course, FOLLIES.
HAMILTON and HADESTOWN are nowhere to be found, for Brinsler (the phenomenal John Scurti), is a late middle-aged man whose taste belongs to the Golden Age. As he’s listening to “Getting to Know You,” he’s getting to know rap music. Alas, he does, because two men who are constantly on the front stoop outside his window play it on their boom-boxes.
(Needless to say, the volume level is not meek.)
Don’t assume that these two who squat on the steps are lifetime losers with nothing to do. Mr. Bugz (a wonderful J. Bernard Calloway) was once proclaimed “one of the architects of hip-hop” during his days as a deejay for a popular radio station. His station in life changed, however, for an altruistic reason and not a nefarious one. Since then, though, another issue has surfaced that may not allow him to return when he’s ready.
His pal Lamont Born Cipher (a terrific Morocco Omari) has been a successful rapper with sales and fans. However, note those verbs: “has been.” Perhaps that’s why he refuses when Gerry asks if his employee Nancy (a hilarious Izzie Steele) may meet him.
That Nancy is a rap aficionado is in her favor, but that she comes from Scarsdale – a mere 27 miles away from Lamont’s Sunnyside but with about 1/27th the level of affluence and fewer African-Americans still – turns Lamont against her before he lays a single eyelid blink on her.
Ah, but when your fans have either forgotten you or only remember you enough to say “Whatever happened to him?” you just might welcome someone who thinks you’re still someone.
Also hanging around the ‘hood is the happy-go-lucky Val Kano (a delightful Analisa Velez). Once she finds that Nancy has rapping ambitions she feels less happy and lucky. Val too has a rap career in mind — “I went to Bridgeport on open-mike night,” she says defiantly, lest her devotion to the art form be questioned — and feels her Puerto-Rican background automatically makes her superior to the white suburbanite.
Val also has her opinions on all three men. Time – and effective and potent playwright Dan McCabe – will show how accurate she is.
Costume designer Kara Harmon has put Val in a tight dress that allows the top of her lace bra to show through; it’s not that far from her earrings as big as doughnuts. Set designer Clint Ramos wondrously replicated the front of a semi-tenement on an inner-city street, but he would have done better to put Gerry’s apartment in the center instead of the right; those seated on the left side of the theater miss quite a bit when the action goes there.
(And everyone should see what goes on at the end of the first act.)
Despite his love for vintage musicals, Gerry is writing one about the Emperor Augustus with a decidedly different approach. Yes, even old-timers want their musical theater to deliver something new.
Some may complain that McCabe hasn’t, for his message seems to be the oft-heard claim that blacks are the only ones who can do justice to rap. What is refreshing, though, is that McCabe gives his rappers an excellent vocabulary and intelligence that reaches levels even higher than the volume of their loudspeakers. McCabe insists that those who like hip-hop cannot be automatically assumed to be haplessly stupid.
Political correctness is a big issue. After Gerry is castigated for a racist implication, he mutters “I have to watch what I say.” But he and one of the men will bond because of what they’re experiencing with a family member. At play’s end, he’ll wind up agreeing with another, although each reaches the conclusion he does for a completely different reason. Each is a purist in his own way.
Those five performers who’ve been described above as phenomenal, wonderful, terrific, hilarious and delightful undoubtedly didn’t reach those heights all by themselves. Billy Porter, who knows something about great performances himself, has turned director for this project, and what a great turn it is. Congrats to him – and while we’re at it, everyone else.