NEW YORK, Oct. 14 (UPI) -- "Little Ham," a new Off Broadway musical that tells how a Harlem neighborhood got rid of the mob-run numbers racket in the 1930s, is a lively, endearing show in the "Guys and Dolls" mold that holds its own with the best Broadway fare.
It has a simplistically told story based on eminent black author Langston Hughes' seldom-seen 1936 sex comedy of the same title. It uses the same lead character, a charming young black man who is something of a scamp and imagines himself to be a ladies' man.
In the musical version, with a book by playwright Dan Owens, the protagonist dumps his job as a shoeshine boy to work for the white mob who runs the numbers, a gambling racket that addicted Harlem in the Great Depression years. Little Ham, as he is known, figures it's a foot up the ladder of success, but it doesn't work out that way.
When his friends -- particularly the attractive beauty shop operator he is most anxious to impress -- turn against him as a traitor to his own people, Little Ham devises an elaborate plan to force the mob out of the neighborhood by cheating its boss out of his profits. There are some serious hitches, but the scheme finally works. Little Ham regains his honor, gets his girl and saves Harlem.
In taking liberties with the Hughes play, Owens has given Little Ham and his girlfriend, Tiny Lee, some of the qualities of Nathan Lane and Miss Adelaide in "Guys and Dolls" and the show the flavor of slapstick comedy. "Little Ham's" main flaw is that it seems almost too anxious to please, exuding more sweetness than bite.
The musical has taken a long time to jell. Eric Krebs, founder of the John Houseman Theater where the show is playing, got the idea of making Hughes' play into a musical in 1985, and it has been produced in its original form in playhouses in New Jersey and Connecticut. It was revised for a workshop production that ran for two months in New York last season.
Much of its success is due to Judd Woldin's infectious, jazzy score, richly orchestrated and arranged by Luther Henderson.
It pays its respects musically to Duke Ellington, Henderson's mentor, and Billy Strayhorn. Woldin's first Broadway musical, "Raisin," won the 1974 Tony Award for best musical, and such "Little Ham" numbers as "Harlem, You're My Girl," "Room for Improvement," and "Big Ideas" demonstrate he hasn't lost his touch. Woldin and Richard Engquist collaborated on lyrics enriched by poesy.
Andre Garner must have been born to play Hamlet Hitchcock Jones ("Little Ham"). He has a slight physical build, grace and lightness in his movements and dance, and a light tenor, and he looks snappy in the colorful zoot suits, matching hats, and showy shoes he dons to fit his mob role. In short, he's the perfect boyish con man and impetuous lover that the role calls for.
Matching Garner for impeccable casting is Brenda Braxton as Sugar Lou, a black mob moll with a cartoon face who favors sexy canary yellow ensembles and a platinum wig that gives her stage presence an alluring incandescence. She gives a wonderful performance as a not-so-dumb broad whose every movement is designed for effect and whose sultry voice is laden with innuendo.
Monica L. Patton works hard at the role of Tiny Lee, who can't help loving Little Ham despite her high principles, but she never quite seems like the kind of girl he would fall for. On the other hand, Cheryl Alexander is full of high principles as Lucille, who invented the numbers racket before the mob takes over, and pulls off the role of a practicing hypocrite beautifully.
Richard Vida as the mob boss, Louie "The Nail" Mahoney, creates a perversely sympathetic character that can't seem to get anything right. Looking like Robert DeNiro on a bad day, Mahoney is the funniest thing in the show, especially when he allows himself to undergo the ministrations of two Harlem facial artists who promise to improve his appearance.
Others turning in excellent performances are Lee Summers as Lucille's hen-pecked husband, Leroy, and Venida Evans, a religious senior citizen who joins in the anti-mob conspiracy with enthusiasm and a willingness to join in the dancing with the aid of her cane. Which brings us to the choreography, an important element in "Little Ham's" audience appeal.
Choreographer Leslie Dockery can't be accused of being particularly original, but he has the cast jitterbugging and boogying with the authentic exuberance of the jive era that is simply wonderful to watch. Music is provided by a five-man onstage jazz ensemble directed by David Alan Bunn at the piano.
Edward T. Gianfrancesco's sets are so-so but practical, and Bernard Grenier's costumes are colorful and in some cases over the top. Direction of the fast-moving show is a credit to Eric Riley, who has worked with the Tennessee Repertory Theater and other regional theaters. He is making an impressive New York debut with "Little Ham."