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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Simply Heavenly
by Lizzie Loveridge

When you don't have five strings, make four do. When you don't have four, then play it with three. That's what the Blues have taught to me. -- Gitfiddle
Rob Howell's impressive set recreating Paddy's Bar in the Harlem of 1957 and the noise of traffic with an occasional car horn, the hubbub of a city, plunges us into this gem of musical nostalgia, Langston Hughes' Simply Heavenly. Add the wonderful Blues music, exemplary performances and perhaps all, except the most curmudgeonly, can overlook the naiveté of the storyline, the only weakness in this celebration of choreography and Blues.

Langston Hughes (1902 - 1967) is a black poet influenced, among others, by Carl Sandburg. His lyrics are impressive and evocative. His poetry is almost unknown in the UK but maybe Simply Heavenly will change this. The origins of the musical were in the weekly columns Langston Hughes wrote from 1943 for the Chicago Defender, about his character, Jesse B Semple, which were later published in book form. The volume Simple Takes a Wife was adapted into this musical Simply Heavenly.

The story is an old but eternal one. Boy meets Nice Girl. Good time Girl distracts boy. Nice Girl catches Boy and Good time Girl. Boy realises which girl he really wants. Boy has to win her back. Simple (Rhashan Stone) almost loses Joyce (Cat Simmons) because of his fling with the vamp, Zarita (Nicola Hughes). The secondary love story features two of the regulars at Paddy's bar, Watermelon seller, Clive Rowe who nurses a passion for Ruby Turner's Miss Mamie.

Whilst Simply Heavenly is not a depressingly realistic picture of the life chances for African Americans in Harlem, it is a piece full of texture and atmosphere. There are moments when we are reminded of what life living at or near the poverty line is like. It is a portrait of a good natured community that can support each other through bad times.

The guitarist, Gitfiddle (Dale Superville) comes into the bar, thrown out of any money making situation by the advent of the juke box, as recorded music threatens the livelihood of live musicians. Miss Mamie says she will pay him to play for her. The resulting song, "Did you Ever Hear the Blues?" is show stopping. Clive Rowe's deep register as Watermelon Joe joins Ruby Turner's magnificent voiced Miss Mamie in a harmonic marriage made in Heaven. Of the other songs, the spiritual roots are dominant in the "They Say John Henry Was a Prize" sung atop the bar like a gospel number. Cat Simmons' fine contralto voice is heard in the soulful ballad, "I Want Someone to Come Home to Who'll Make My Dreams Come True". Zarita's birthday party ensemble number Shout! is an energetic crowd pleaser and the slow, melodic "The Hunter and the Hunted" gives us Nicola Hughes' extraordinary range.

These actors, and many of them I knew as actors before I knew they had wonderful voices, not only can sing but move as well. Paul J Medford's choreography is organic, not imposed but natural and character driven. Jason Pennycooke plays John Jasper, the hyperactive teenager whose athletic dance number in sneakers, down the stairs and over the bar, is a high point. The beautiful Rhashan Stone has a lanky presence with such expressive movement and sincerity in the role of Simple. Clive Rowe's Melon is show stealing, both with his singing and his poignantly comic courting of Miss Mamie with a single red rose between his teeth as he approaches her on his knees. Nicola Hughes' busty femme fatale is as seductive as Cat Simmons' church going Joyce is sweet. There is a comic number in praise of the older woman, Ruby Turner, Melanie Marshall and Angela Wynter in "Good Old Girl" show that old girls can be fun too.

The Young Vic's studio type stage is the perfect setting for Josette Bushell-Mingo's intelligent direction of this involving musical with a delightful innocence. Simply Heavenly is good enough to transfer but I cannot think of a suitable venue in the West End dominated as it is, by Victorian proscenium arch theatres. If there is no possibility of transfer, then can we have a CD? Sorry Gitfiddle!

Simply Heavenly
Book and Lyrics by Langston Hughes
Music by David Martin
Directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo

Starring Clive Rowe, Rhashan Stone, Ruby Martin
With: Kennie Andrews, Des Coleman, Carlton Headley, Nicola Hughes, Paul Kissaun, Melanie Marshall, Jason Pennycooke, Cat Simmons, Dale Superville, Kelvin Thompson, Angel Wynter
Designer: Rob Howell
Choreography: Paul J Medford
Lighting Designer: Paul Anderson
Musical Director: Kelvin Thomson
Musical Supervisor and Arranger: Warren Wills
Sound: Nick Lidster
A joint production from the Young Vic Theatre and the Royal National Theatre Studio
Running time: Two hours forty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7928 6363
Booking to 17th April 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 17th March 2003 Performance at the Young Vic Theatre, The Cut, Waterloo, London SE1 (Tube/Rail Station: Waterloo/Bermondsey)
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