In this tale of a black man -- the title character -- who runs numbers for a white syndicate until he breaks free and wins the girl of his dreams, the players Brenda Braxton, Monica L. Patton, Joy Styles, Cheryl Alexander, Christopher L. Morgan, D'Ambrose Boyd, Venida Evans, Joe Wilson, Jr., and Julia Lema seize every chance they get to rise above the so-so songs and dialogue they've been assigned. Troupers every one, they face the audience with grins as wide as Cinerama screens, kick up their heels, and behave as if they're spinning gold.
Braxton is Sugar Lou, a small-time mobster's moll in a saucy blonde wig and feathers wherever they can be stuck (and have been stuck by designer Bernard Grenier). She's amusingly petulant when she is or isn't around boyfriend Louie and warbles with the kind of abandon that makes audiences grin until their cheeks hurt. Patton, playing Tiny Lee, the reluctant object of Little Ham's affection, has a perky, no-nonsense way about her and a voice that also puts up with no nonsense. The stylish Styles, supplying the joy promised by her first name, is adorable as a beauty parlor assistant called Opal whose limbs have yet to be introduced to one another. Alexander is forthright in her role as Lucille, a woman content to run an independent numbers racket right up to the moment when two wise guys -- one small, one mountainous -- move in or her. All of these performers deserve big bouquets for work above and beyond the call of duty. And director Eric Riley rates a hearty thanks for encouraging the cast to trot out every trick they know. In some situations, playing as if to the back row of the Yankee Stadium bleachers would be frowned on; with this enterprise, it's welcome.
But what to make of Langston Hughes's Little Ham as a new entry in the musical comedy annals? (Actually, the tag line for the production is "A Harlem Jazzical.") The first thing to be pointed out is that the show -- for which Dan Owens is credited with the libretto, Judd Woldin is credited with the music, and Woldin and Richard Engquist are credited with the lyrics -- doesn't have a great deal to do with Langston Hughes or the Little Ham he wrote in 1935.; instead, it might better have been labeled Eric Krebs's Little Ham. Krebs, the top-lined producer with an additional "concept by" citation on the title page, writes a program note that begins: "The concept for this musical began in 1985 as a glint in my mind's eye. When I first fell in love with Hughes's wonderful characters and the language and imagery that he used to capture the unique energy of Harlem...."
Notice that Krebs doesn't say he fell in love with Hughes's storyline. He has seen to it that Owens has appropriated a handful of the types Hughes commemorated during the Harlem Renaissance's advancing days and some of the original play's situations: the numbers playing, the beauty salon, Little Ham's insinuating activities. But whereas Hughes's Depression-era fable, written for a cast of at least 40, depicted Little Ham's romantic complications with at least two women and created suspense with the question of who would win the Social Trucking Contest at the annual Hello Club Social, Krebs and Owens have contrived a narrative about Little Ham's falling under the sway of toughs and have engineered a complicated, unnecessarily confusing plot in which Little Ham and friends beat the mobsters at their own game. There is no emphasis on the dance style known as "trucking"; all that remains of that period reference is a repeated lyric in the final number "Shake a leg and truck on down." The principals do wind up at a dance contest, but, possibly because choreographer Leslie Dockery doesn't have enough seasoned dancers in the cast, there isn't much excitement built into that sequence. Trucking is minimal.
Hughes wrote about his work, "It is a play without serious reason for being. It is just to laugh and, in laughing, to be happy." Although he may have been disingenuously underplayng his intentions -- he surely wanted to hint strongly at how whites wielded influence in '30s Harlem -- he was interested more in character studies than plot complications. Krebs and company have apparently decided that, while the characters were still stageworthy, the easy-going tale was not; but the Owens substitutions, which are geared to playing down Little Ham's amorous duplicities and to showing African-Americans reclaiming the power ceded to whites, don't have the weight of conviction. (Incidentally: my theater companion, who has researched the subject, pointed out that, in the 30's, white gangsters maintained Harlem supremacy in cahoots with black gangsters.)
Edward T. Gianfrancesco's sets for Little Ham are serviceably adaptable, though they look as if they've been executed on a low budget. (Note to Gianfrancesco: In 1935, wall phones didn't look like the one mounted here.) But these modest designs are evidently what you get these days for $750,000. That's the amount of capital producer Krebs raised to open the production in one of the Off-Broadway houses he owns. (He had hoped to raise $3.5 million for a Broadway presentation when, earlier this year, the Hudson Guild tryout set some critics to dancing in the streets; but this was not to be.)