Review by David Munro
LANGSTON Hughes, the celebrated American Negro poet, probably better known theatrically as the librettist for Kurt Weill on Street Scene, wrote a series of stories about an honest easygoing man called Jess Semple (or Simple).
These were collected into book form and, one of these, Hughes adapted as a musical, Simply Heavenly which opened Off-Broadway and moved into Broadway in August 1957, with Claudia McNeil and Melvin Stewart. It appeared for a short time in London at the Adelphi in 1958 with Melvin Stewart and Bertice Reading and is now revived by the Young Vic Company.
It is mainly set in the locale beloved by didactic dramatists, a bar, where the characters congregate to bewail the fate of the American Negro in Fifties America.
The piece is firmly rooted in its period, both with its sentiments and musical style. Jess Semple is Hughes' mouthpiece for the wrongs of the blacks, which are highlighted by two monologues, the Flying Saucer monologue and the Mississippi monologue, both of which are performed with passion and conviction in this production, by Rhashan Stone.
However, luckily for an audience not immediately concerned with the problems of segregation, the director, Josette Bushell-Mingo, has emphasised the show's song and dance aspects, skating over the more polemical aspects of the book, and is ably abetted in this respect by her talented cast.
The plot, for what it is worth, deals with the attempts by Semple/Simple (Stone) to obtain a divorce and get married to his current sweetheart, Joyce (Cat Simmons). The course of true love is hampered by poverty and an ex-girlfriend, Zarita (Nicola Hughes), but all is resolved in time for the final curtain and knees-up.
The habitués of the bar include a confirmed spinster, Miss Mamie, the part played originally by Claudia McNeil and Bertice Reading but now by Ruby Turner. Miss Mamie is pursued by a watermelon vendor (Clive Rowe), and they ably carry the humour and main singing chores of the evening . Indeed, I could have done with more of them than the script allowed. They alone are worth the price of admission.
This is not to denigrate the other performances. Rhashan Stone and Nicola Hughes sing and dance with skill and have fun with the stereotypical "simple" boy and "tart with a heart".
The rest of the cast play the other barflies - Dale Superville, as an-out-of work guitarist, has a haunting Blues moment; Des Coleman has an incredible dance solo, as a barman, but it is invidious to single out performances in what is basically an ensemble production. All the cast sing and dance with vigour and obvious enjoyment, making one realise that there is life after Memphis and that the revival of this historical curiosity is very worthwhile.
The irony inherent in the title that life for Negroes in 1950's New York was "Simply Heavenly" has been ironed out by a joyous and fulfilling production. Now it is the show that is simply heavenly and I think Mr Hughes would have agreed.
Simply Heavenly by Langstone Hughes, Lyrics Langstone Hughes, Music David Martin, Directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo, Design Rob Howell, Lighting Paul Anderson, Sound Nick Lidster, Choreographer Paul J Medfford, Musical Director Kelvin Thokmson, WITH: Kennie Andrews, Des Coleman, Carlton Headley, Nicola Hughes, Paul Kissain, Melanie Marshall, Jason Pennycooke, Clive Rowe, Cat Simmons, Rhashan Stone, Dale Superville, Kelvin Thomson, Ruby Turner, Angela Winter.
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