Rocket science must look pretty easy next to the error-prone chemistry of musical theater. The simple joys of the art form have become harder to come by than a bootleg Ethel Merman video. Yet as soon as you think all hope’s gone, there’s Elaine Stritch selling survival with a raspy rendition of “I’m Still Here,” or Barbara Cook reviving foolish faith in romance with a poignant medley from She Loves Me. No, not even the worst excesses of Andrew Lloyd Webber can destroy belief in the power of a song-filled performer clowning, romancing, or just plain moping around. If audiences have been doing most of the latter in the theater lately, it’s a testament to our optimism that we’re still supporting the business even in the schlockiest of times.
Amas Musical Theatre’s Langston Hughes’s Little Ham—A Harlem Jazzical has so much natural charm that it’d be easy to overpraise its merit in the current enfeebled environment. Let’s just say it’s probably the best-sung show in town and definitely one of the few that’s capable of exceeding your expectations of delight. Performed at the Hudson Guild, a neighborhood playhouse lodged in a North Chelsea community center, the production trades on its unpretentious appeal. Yet it has more panache than most of the theater district’s lavishly produced fare, and its shoestring spring overshadows the majority of its flaws.
The book, adapted from Hughes’s 1936 farce about Harlem residents outfoxing the Mob, is a silly confection redeemed by its celebration of jazz-age New York. As nimble with his wit as he is on his toes, Little Ham (André Garner) has been forcibly recruited by Louie “the Nail” Mahoney (Richard Vida) and his henchman Rushmore (Jerry Gallagher), who’ve invaded Harlem to take over the local numbers racket. The denizens don’t like anyone muscling in on their gambling fun, but it’s not until Little Ham’s love interest, Tiny Lee (Carmen Ruby Floyd), a beautician with her own salon, is told she must cough up “protection” money that Little Ham devises a plan to send the thugs back downtown.
The cast, directed by Eric Riley, offers only broad comic portraits, but the cartoonish energy grows infectious as the antics heat up. Stacey Sargeant as Cotton Club entertainer Sugar Lou and Joe Wilson Jr. as her fashion designer confidante are, like everyone else onstage, playing for unsubtle laughs. But the over-the-top shamelessness is in keeping with Hughes’s depression-era shtick, which was intended to divert, not make anyone think. Garner and Floyd don’t give off romantic sparks, but they have winning voices and a geniality that make it impossible not to root for their big smooch at the end.
Judd Woldin, who wrote the score and collaborated with Richard Engquist on the lyrics, provides an impressive array of musical styles, from honky-tonk to ballad to gospel—all of which invoke the Harlem Renaissance spirit of the play. Leslie Dockery’s choreography keeps the joint jumpin’, especially during the rousing finale, “Say Hello to Your Feet.” Given what passes for musical comedy these days, Little Ham is a semiprecious jewel in the rough.
Summer of ’42, on the other hand, is a catalog of all that’s wrong with the contemporary American musical—a generic dramatic imagination, a leeching sentimentality, and music and lyrics that trot out every piano-bar cliché. What could be behind the desire to transform a forgettable 1971 film into an Off-Broadway commercial dud? It’s the kind of project that makes you wish artists would keep their phony nostalgia to themselves.
Hunter Foster’s book hews to the screenplay, which revolves around three high school boys discovering their sexuality during a summer vacation on a New England island. Hermie (Ryan Driscoll) is the nerdy-cute boy infatuated with the newly married Dorothy (Kate Jennings Grant, a decent Jennifer O’Neill knockoff). As Hermie’s buddies Oscy (Brett Tabisel) and Benjie (Jason Marcus) try to cop a feel during a triple date to the movies, our young hero fantasizes about hitting a home run with the sweet but seemingly out-of-reach older woman, whose husband has left for war in the Pacific. His dream eventually comes true when Dorothy’s husband is killed in battle, and, out of grief, she initiates Hermie into the world of the flesh. The unseemly emotional aspects of the story are, naturally, ignored in favor of a trite coming-of-age yearning. Pardon me, boys, if your bittersweet elegy doesn’t leave me all choked up.
Gabriel Barre’s direction and choreography are energetically smooth, with the liveliest moments emerging not from the plot but from pop-up historical snapshots. News updates from Walter Winchell (Bill Kux) and giddy Andrew Sisters-style interludes provide welcome diversions from the erotic saga of pimply teens. Nothing about the production, it should be said, is blameworthy—but neither is anything truly outstanding. The problem, as is typical for musicals nowadays, lies in the initial stale concept. Borrowed emotion simply can’t sing, dance, or act the way genuine feeling can.