If you are a musical theatre fanatic, like me, with a mammoth record collection, then you have always wanted to see Jamaica. Well, cross that off my bucket list. Freedom Theatre has done it and I was there.
This rarely performed musical has quite the reputation. The lyrics are by the great E. Y. Harburg, with music by the great Harold Arlen, (the Wizard of Oz team). Written in 1954, Jamaica was conceived to take advantage of the popularity of both Harry Belafonte and the Calypso music craze he engendered. When Belafonte withdrew, the authors reworked the piece for the other black box office star, Lena Horne, which resulted in a score more representative of the jazzier, seductive Horne, than Belafonte. Add in Harburg’s love of clever rhymes and social comment, and the result is truly intriguing.
Jamaica plays more like a 20’s musical than a golden age classic. The story is weak, almost non-existent, and is abetted by a carefully contrived star-turn for Lena Horne with extensive dance and choral sequences. (Musical Direction is by Bryant Pugh and the 4-piece band is hot.) All of this requires an amazing cast. Freedom Theatre has it.
First, the ensemble. The tremendous singer-dancers athletically evoke the Caribbean choreography of Director/Choreographer Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. Add to this the bright multi-colored set by James Smallwood, Pamela Hobson and Maharaj, with the eye-popping costumes by Millie Hiibel and the stage is awash with brilliant, swirling colors and movement.
The ensemble consists of Sanchel Brown, J’woanteera Jones, Aaron Mitchell, Stanley Morrison, William Morrison, Tiarra Murrell, Mikal Odom, and Delvene Pitt. Choreographer Maharaj has created a wonderful hurricane ballet for them that, abetted by Andrew Cowles’ atmospheric lighting, sends bodies and furniture flying across the stage, using only dance to create the illusion.
The leading actors are just as good. The story involves the beautiful Savannah played by Annesa Neibauer. She longs to leave this island paradise and travel to the mechanized modern metropolis of Manhattan. Her fiancée, Koli (Shabazz Green) sees no reason to leave a year round vacation-spot where people swim, fish, drink and bask in the sun. Enter a crafty American, played with slimy white suited charm by Walter Deshields and you have a story that could be told in 20 minutes rather than two and one half-hours.
The beautiful Neibauer is stunning in her many costumes, can really dance, and dominates the stage with her charming charisma. She currently needs more vocal experience, with a tendency to sing off-key, but dominates the production none the less. Shabazz Green is totally adorable as Koli and sings the ballads (“Coconut Sweet” and “Savannah”) with more vocal panache than his original cast recording counterpart Ricardo Mantalban. The traditional comedy “second couple” is played with outrageous slapstick by LaTasha S. Morris as Ginger and Reji Woods as Cicero. All of the songs are delivered with skill and gusto, including the youthful Courtney “CJ” Mitchell as Savannah’s little brother and Deborah Billups as a magical, basso-voiced Grandma.
Typical Harburgisms include “Push the Button,” satirizing modern machines, and “Leave the Atom Alone.” Power and government turn up in “Napoleon” (“Napoleon is a pastry/Caesar is a salad”), while the eternal battle between men and women is skillfully overthrown in “Incompatibility.” The mix is tremendously enjoyable, though patrons born after 1950 might not get the Anna Lucasta and John Foster Dulles jokes.
If we had this much fun, why is Jamaica so rarely performed? Jamaica has been the target of much criticism in both black and white circles. Decades ago, I studied the script with my teacher Lehman Engel, who conducted the original Broadway production. He referred to it, if memory serves, as, “an invention of white Jews, delivering stereotypical entertainment to rich Broadway audiences, who are mostly tired businessmen. The childish characters love to laze in the sun, drinking to excess, and are fortunate that they have the British to govern them.” Hmmm.
Today’s directors treat such material with a certain degree of apology. The recent Broadway production of Porgy and Bess, for example, sanitized many of the characters and nearly eliminated the Catfish Row setting. That is not the case here. Director Maharaja obviously sees this as a celebration of a particular culture and the cast embraces the stereotypes with fervor. Comedy lead Cicero actually drapes his body in a Union Jack, putting on a hilarious upper-class English accent, while his partner Ginger, does a comic drunk act worthy of Mack Sennett. Some may be affronted, but last night’s audience responded with a tremendous ovation.
Cross Jamaica off the list. Might we hope, in the future, to see Arlen’s House of Flowers, or Duke Ellington’s Beggar’s Holiday? Let’s dream.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with an intermission.