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