What haven't survived the years so well are their Broadway shows. The Show is On, Hooray for What?, and Bloomer Girl are barely remembered and rarely performed, probably with good reason. Like so many musicals of the '30s and '40s, they have some lovely tunes but suffer from weak or silly books. Arlen and Harburg's 1957 hit Jamaica is an example. But in bringing us the first major New York revival of the show since its Broadway debut, the enthusiastic group at The Paul Robeson Theatre invite us to indulge in fluffy nostalgia and just concentrate on having fun.
The show is set on fictional Pigeon Island in Jamaica, where the locals, still living under British rule, make their living from fishing. Savannah (Markeisha Ensley), an island girl, has dreams of going to New York; but when her fickle suitor Koli (Lloyd Goodman) fails to fulfill his promise of taking her there, she turns to Joe Nashua, a visiting Manhattanite who has been dazzling the islanders with big talk and big money. Meanwhile, Cicero (Rodney Gilbert), the assistant to the island's British governor, chases sassy Ginger (Diane Dixon), and a monster of a storm puts the islanders in great danger. But not to worry--everything works out in the end.
Even when it was created, Jamaica was outdated. The current production's dramaturg, Silvija Ozols, notes that Jamaican men of the time were more preoccupied with factory work than fishing. And early in the show, as the islanders sing a rousing number called "Push De Button" in celebration of how Americans can activate every appliance and convenience with the mere touch of a finger, one can see the potential for this show to be slightly offensive in its portrayal of the Jamaicans as "simple people." On the other hand, less-than-complex characters were still not uncommon in musicals in the 1950s, and the islanders are the good guys after all. Frankly, I'm just thrilled to see a show wherein a preponderance of black talent is utilized; even today, few musicals cast more than a handful of black performers, let alone specify them.
In any case, Jamaica isn't so grounded in the past that it doesn't have a humor we can appreciate today. Harburg, who also wrote the book, fully recognized the ironies of the tourist trade on the island--at one point, the locals are instructed to wear their costume garments, to only speak to tourists in Calypso, and to stop making their own handicrafts because official "Made in Jamaica" items will now be sent in from Hackensack, New Jersey. Sharp observations like this one counter the more traditional, playful humor that abounds in the show.
Great songs rendered by fine performers are the best reason to see this production. Arlen and Harburg are widely recognized as two of the best songwriters of the 20th century, and not for nothing. The searing "Coconut Sweet" is an unforgettable tune, and Ensley brings across her character's strength and pain in her rendition of it. "Ain't It De Truth" (a winning number sung by Ensley and Dixon) and "Savannah" are also memorable. For "local flavor," Arlen gives his music a Carribbean sound, and Harburg even works in some Harry Belafonte jokes. (Apparently, the show was originally to be a vehicle for Belafonte.)
If the original production of Jamaica is remembered for anything in particular, it's probably the fact that its cast included Lena Horne, Ricardo Montalban, and Ossie Davis. This production doesn't have that kind of star power, of course, but the cast gives 110%. The ensemble is energetic, while the leads are very winning and in fine voice. There are several good character turns, notably by Gilbert, Yolanda Karr as Savannah's grandmother, and especially Dixon, who commands the stage whenever she appears. Director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj does an excellent job of moving the large company around the stage (and, sometimes, among the audience); he keeps the show quickly paced and the mood light.