Carmen Ruby Floyd and André Garnerin Little Ham(Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg)
Carmen Ruby Floyd and André Garner
in Little Ham
(Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg)
1936 Harlem is the setting of Little Ham, currently being presented by Amas Musical Theatre. In the midst of the Depression, the neighborhood is building itself a shining new identity as a hotbed for innovative music and style in what would become known as the Harlem Renaissance; but outside forces are trying to take away its newfound independence, and its residents must overcome with cunning, wit, and an unbreakable spirit.

This "new musical," just now making its New York City debut after premiering at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse in 1987, is the brainchild of Eric Krebs and is based on the Langston Hughes play of the same title. The story begins as Lucille and Leroy, who run the local numbers game, are targeted by Louie "The Nail" Mahoney, a mob honcho who wants to make his mark by getting a hold on Harlem. Louie makes Hamlet Hitchcock Jones (a.k.a. Little Ham), a perky young man who works for Lucille, do his dirty work for him; this creates for Ham the moral quandary of having to fleece his friends. Among those he is expected to shake down is beauty shop owner Miss Tiny Lee, with whom Little Ham happens to be in love. In the end, Ham must stand up to Louie, get the mob out of Harlem, and win Miss Tiny's heart and a dance contest while he's at it--all in just a couple of days!

Given the show's setting and its preoccupation with gambling, along with the inclusion of quirky characters like the flighty Sugar Lou Bird (Louie's mistress) and the surly gangster Rushmore (Louie's bodyguard), Little Ham feels like a jazzy Harlem version of Guys and Dolls. Though not an achievement on the scale of that classic, this is a charming and feisty song-and-dance musical, a sure crowd-pleaser thanks to its catchy tunes and sweet story.

Little Ham obviously represents Langston Hughes in a lighter mode, and this adaptation pays tribute to the musical theater of Hughes' era, offering a relatively light-hearted treatment of heavy subject matter and a happy ending for all. Dan Owen's witty book is full of great characters and he keeps the messy plot from overwhelming the show as a whole. Judd Woldin and Richard Engquist's score, the musical's greatest asset, features great comic duets (Lucille and Leroy's "Room for Improvement"), moody solos (Little Ham's "Harlem, You're My Girl"), and impressive ensemble moments (the fantastic opening number, "I'm Gonna Hit Today"). The lyrics are fine and the music, though not especially memorable, is a blast, thanks in large part to the playing of a fabulous, five-man jazz band. The arrangements and orchestrations are by no less than Luther Henderson, the Duke Ellington protégé also well-known for his work on such other Broadway shows as Jelly's Last Jam.

The story and music are served well by the large cast, led by André Garner as Little Ham. (It's nice to see this actor in a leading role that suits him after his small parts in Marie Christine and The Music Man). The lovely Carmen Ruby Floyd gives a subtly sassy performance as the strong-willed and upstanding Miss Tiny Lee. D'Abrose Boyd, Venida Evans, Kevyn Morrow, Stacey Sargeant, Joy Styles, and Lee Summers are all wonderful comic actors and singers; I only wish there had been more opportunity for their individual talents to be showcased in this fine ensemble effort.

Little Ham is a great little musical about a community pulling together to overcome obstacles. It also happens to have plenty of laughs, toe-tapping music, and lots of energy. This one is for the folks who long for the days of Ellington, Gershwin, and Porter, or for anyone who just likes to have a good time.