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A simply heavenly revival at Trafalgar



Review by David Munro

SIMPLY Heavenly was originally produced on 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 was successfully revived by the Young Vic Company in 2003 and it is this production, slightly revised, which can now be seen at the Trafalgar Studios.

The book and lyrics are the work of Langston Hughes, the celebrated American Negro poet, probably best known in the UK as the librettist of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene.

The basis of the show is one of a series of stories he wrote about an honest, easygoing man called Jess Semple, which Hughes adapted for the libretto for Simply Heavenly.

The action mainly takes place 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 the composer, David Martin’s musical style.

Jess Semple, or Simple as he is called in the show (hence the title), is Hughes’ mouthpiece for the wrongs of the blacks, which is highlighted by the Mississippi monologue, which is performed with passion and conviction by Rhashan Stone.

However, luckily for an audience not immediately concerned with the problems of segregation, the director, Josette Bushell-Mingo, has laid the emphasis on song and dance supported by David Martin's bright and tuneful score, skating over the more polemical aspects of the book.

In this, she is admirably aided and abetted by the choreography of Paul J. Bedford and the zest and dancing skills of her company.

The plot, for what it is worth, deals with the attempts by Semple/Simple (Rhashan Stone) to obtain a divorce from his wife (who never appears) and get married to his current sweetheart, Joyce (Allyson Brown).

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 by 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.

Ruby Turner has a fine voice, as does Clive Rowe, and their duet Did You Ever Hear the Blues justifiably brought the house down.

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; Dawn Hope and Melanie Marshall join Ruby Turner for a raucous and riotous trio, Good Ol’ Girl, which in any other show, would have been the high spot of the evening.

It is, however, a little invidious to single out performances in what is basically a beautifully executed 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 Book and Lyrics by Langston Hughes; Music by David Martin.
Director, Josette Bushell-Mingo; Design, Rob Howell; Lighting Designer, Paul Anderson; Sound Designer, Nick Lidster; Choreographer, Paul J. Medford;
Musical Director, Warren Wills.
CAST: Kennie Andrews; Nicola Hughes; Melanie Marshall; Clive Rowe; Rhashan Stone; Dale Superville; Ruby Turner; C. Gerod Harris; Allyson Brown; William Byrd Wilkins; Roger Davis Roberts; Fraser Collins; Dawn Hope; Daniel Gayle; Natalie Tapper.
Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall London, SW1A 2DY.
Evenings: Mon – Sat 7.30pm / Matinees Wed & Sat 3pm
Box Office: 0870 060 4444

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