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LETTERS TO EDITOR
--- Original Review by Macey Levin
The Harlem Renaissance of the 1930's was a rich era in America's cultural life. A major contributor to this outburst of creative activity was Langston Hughes, poet, novelist, and author of 20 plays including Little Ham, which has been musicalized and is being given a rousing production by Amas Musical Theatre at the Hudson Guild Theatre.
The plot, which takes place in 1936, is a mixture of Damon Runyonesque characters, the Newman/Redford film The Sting leavened with TV sitcom circumstances and jokes. Hamlet Hitchcock Jones (Little Ham) is a Harlem rascal who allows himself to be coerced into working for Louie "The Nail" Mahoney, a downtown white hood. Louie plans to annex Harlem's numbers rackets for himself in order to join Bugsy, Dutch and Meyer in gangsterism's higher echelons. When Ham realizes that his friends are going to be victimized, he concocts a scheme that will save them, undermine Louie's nefarious plot and allow him to reclaim his place in the community.
There are a number of pointed references to the pain of the Depression and the frustrations of living in Harlem, but they do not undermine the strength and resiliency of the eminently likeable characters. The time period and the culture of the neighborhood are major elements in the structure of the work, and, though somewhat stereotypically and romantically drawn, they lend an authentic flavor to the optimistic tone of the show.
The plot is predictable and the characters almost cardboard, but the great energy of the production comes from the music written by Judd Woldin, who also wrote the lyrics with Richard Engquist. The songs, played by a five-piece onstage band led by David Alan Bunn, running from bluesy jazz to comic numbers, move the plot and contribute to the spine of the production. The band is integral to the production and they create a lot of sound, sometimes too much, drowning out vocals. Leslie Dockery's choreography captures the spirit of the times by capitalizing on the Lindy while paying attention to characters' individual qualities.
Andre Garner, who leads the cast as Ham, is tentative early in the first act, but gains in strength as he rallies his friends. It may have been Garner's or director Eric Riley's choice to enervate Ham in the early stages, but it is a disservice to the actor and the pace of the show. Garner possesses a strong tenor voice and smooth dancing style that buttresses Ham's endearing qualities. As he grows, which he does, the production gains in energy and joy.
The strongest voice in the show belongs to Carmen Ruby Floyd who plays Tiny Lee, Ham's love interest. When Floyd belts her songs, Merman, watch out! Her no-nonsense beauty shop owner is an effective contrast that brings depth to her and Ham.
Each member of the supporting cast is similarly strong, in particular, Danielle Lee Greaves as Lucille the owner of a shoe-shine/numbers shop, Stacy Sergeant's Sugar Lou Bird the aspiring chanteuse who is Louie "The Nail's" mistress, the flamboyantly gay Jimmy of Joe Wilson, Jr. and Joy Styles' manicurist Opal.
Richard Vida as Louie and his mountainous henchman Rushmore played by Jerry Gallagher are more caricature than true villains. Their physical disparity is a comic-book joke that neatly complements the broad characterization and acting style that permeate the production. They, along with others, occasionally push to get a laugh which often proves unsuccessful
Edward T. Gianfrancesco's set design is multileveled, providing flexibility on the small stage to indicate various locations in and around Harlem. The costumes of Bernard Grenier, sometimes using crayon-bright colors, effectively suggest the era and styles of the day. Rich Latta's lighting helps delineate the various playing areas without becoming intrusive, but he sometimes utilizes backlighting for apparently little reason.
Though director Riley has created some awkward transitions by having his actors come directly downstage with the opening measures of most solos and duets, he has infused the show with a sense of style that makes it reminiscent of musicals of the 1950's. It is this charm and energy along with the strength of the performances and music that make Little Ham, a love song to Harlem, an exhilarating experience.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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