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
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