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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the November 6, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Off-Broadway: `Little Ham’

The Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s spawned many

gifted black authors. Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) was one such prominent

poet, playwright, author, and lyricist whose voice spoke out most

lovingly and perceptively about those people who live and sing the

blues. In the musical "Little Ham," which this corner saw

in its world premiere at the George Street Playhouse in 1987, has

been resurrected, rejuvenated, rewritten, and re-envisioned for its

current incarnation at the John Houseman Theater. This production,

under the auspices of producer Eric Krebs (a former George Street

Playhouse artistic director), and under the surprisingly perfunctory

direction of Eric Riley, is enjoying a move-over after its well-received

staging last season at Off-Off Broadway’s Amas Musical Theater.

Just about everything in the way of production values has been lavished

upon what is essentially a merely pleasant adaptation by Daniel Owens

of the similarly titled 1930s Hughes’ play. The show looks terrific.

However, Edward Gianfrancesco’s impressionistic and flexible unit

setting, Bernard Grenier’s flashily witty costumes, and Richard Latta’s

skillful lighting are only a frame for what is essentially a rather

naive satire. "Little Ham" derives most of its fun from innocently

stereotyping those Harlem types who might well be the uptown counterparts

to Damon Runyon’s Broadway crowd.

The story of a Don Juan-ish bootblack who unwittingly becomes a "numbers"

collecting lackey for an Irish mobster named Louie "The Nail"

Mahoney is not without its amusing possibilities. The way in which

Hamlet Hitchcock Jones, aka "Little Ham" is redeemed to his

own neighborhood cronies by enlisting their aid in a reverse scam

is not far from the plot of "Guys and Dolls." But it is there

that the similarities end.

If the original play was a minor, if jovial effort, then Owen has

merely enforced that opinion. The question remains whether that is

good enough. Despite being served well by Andre Garner, as Little

Ham, Monica Patton, as Ham’s girlfriend, Brenda Baxton, as a floozy

showgirl, Joe Wilson Jr., as her prissy manager, and an exuberant

group of black performers, "Little Ham" rarely rises to the

level of its aspirations. I wish that the show could have been helped

more than it has been by the bouncy, yet unremarkable, jazz flavored

score by Judd Woldin and Richard Engquist.

Perhaps it’s the lack of any real conflict that keeps the musical

from capturing our imagination as it should. Occasionally, Leslie

Dockery’s choreography redeems the predictability of events with a

number "Say Hello to Your Feet," and a lively ballroom dance

contest that ends the show. Unfortunately, a big budget isn’t what

was needed to turn "Little Ham" into a big show. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.

— Simon Saltzman

Little Ham, John Houseman Theater, 450 West 42 Street,

New York. $65. Tele-Charge, 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.


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