It’s not only because Jesse B. Semple, the central character in “Simply Heavenly,” goes by the nickname “Simple” that this Langston Hughes curiosity from the 1950s can sometimes seem too naive by half. But just when Hughes’ account of the courtship between the lovesick Jesse (Rhashan Stone) and his beloved Joyce (Cat Simmons) — “My choice: Joyce,” goes a sample remark — stretches one’s patience to breaking point, along comes one or another of the roof-raising songs from Hughes and composer-collaborator David Martin. At such times, and there are blessedly many of them, an all-but-forgotten slice of the American blues circa 1957 comes bursting forth anew, and the Young Vic suddenly seems the happiest, most happenin’ space in London.
For that, one must first thank director Josette Bushell-Mingo, a noted performer (she was London’s first Rafiki in “The Lion King”) who has assembled what must be one of the more potent arrays ever under one roof of black British musical theater talent. (Kennie Andrews is the company’s lone American.) The attenuated scenario doesn’t give the cast much to chew on in terms of character — the party girl Zarita (Nicola Hughes, no relation, presumably, to Langston), for instance, is as defined by her wiggle while strutting about Rob Howell’s tiered set as she is by anything in the text. But once the various denizens of the Harlem bar where the show is set lift their voices in song, well, let’s just say the title comes as honestly by the adjective “heavenly” as it does by its adverb.
Langston Hughes first devised the figure of Semple/Simple in 1943 for a weekly newspaper column that went on to feed a handful of volumes of related tales through to 1965. But for a writer who wasn’t without radical leanings, “Simply Heavenly” settles for a dismayingly conventional story that at times gives off the whiff of an anaesthetized black “Guys and Dolls,” with Joyce as the prim, church-going grammarian on a Sister Sarah-like mission of her own: to achieve domestic bliss with Jesse, a task that is more easily lamented over in song than actually accomplished. (Some of the lovers’ linguistic spats may remind American audience members of Lucy’s attempts to educate Ricky all those decades ago on “I Love Lucy.”)
For one thing, Jesse’s divorce from his errant first wife isn’t exactly proving, uh, simple, while Zarita’s sashaying antics offer up their own distractions, with West End “Fosse” star and Olivier nominee Hughes cutting a fierce, blonde-wigged figure of sexual energy (some might call it villainy) in the role.
Politics aren’t entirely absent from the equation. It’s the plight of blacks in American society, notes Jesse, to be “taken until we are undertaken,” while his sorrowful comparison of himself with Job breaks down on matters of fact: At least the Lord answered Job, remarks Jesse, when our hero, by contrast, is going unheard. But the material, as presented, more or less demands that the central lovers pall slightly set against the parade of habitues who keep the local bar hopping, even if librettist Hughes here gets away with various stereotypes — a jiggly, jolly black man called Melon? the hyper-buxom Mamie described as a “great big bundle of joy”? — that would be unacceptable coming from a white man’s pen. (Among them: “Big black bottoms/we all got ’em.”)
Few, however, are likely to flinch when the cast, individually or collectively, gets going in songs that almost always eclipse dialogue deserving credit for anticipating the psychobabble decades still to come (“the me I oughta be,” the need “to get to that island of you”). Clive Rowe and Ruby Turner long ago cleared places for themselves in the black British musical performer pantheon. Even so, it’s a considerable coup to find them both on hand as keen company players when not letting loose on songs (“Did You Ever Hear the Blues?” preeminently) in arrangements by musical supervisor Warren Wills that are blazingly put over by musical director Kelvin Thomson’s ace band.
In the lead, Stone brings a thankfully unsanctimonious sweetness to a part that could easily curdle, prompting at least this spectator to wonder whether many in the cast couldn’t do immediate double duty in a London revival of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Until that happens, at least “Simply Heavenly” is around in these infinitely grim and complicated times to get a benumbed British populace up on its feet. Or as Jess in the first act puts it with blissfully apt simplicity: “The last thing I want to do is sit down.”