The genial charms of this new musical set in Depression-era Harlem can certainly be savored in its new incarnation at the John Houseman Theater. The production has moved Off Broadway after a well-received run at a smaller space downtown last season. Taking pride of place among those assets is a lively score particularly notable for the ease and brassy wit of the lyrics by Richard Engquist and composer Judd Woldin (the latter best known for “Raisin”). Just behind would be a raft of sassy and expressive performance from an energetic cast, with the distaff performers shining brightest.
But the larger venue also means the show’s flaws are more visible to the naked eye and audible to the ear (the sound system, to begin with, is none too subtle). The musical is based on a little-known play by Langston Hughes, but whether Hughes or book writer Dan Owens is to blame for the recurring flat-footedness is hard to say — and a moot point. The direction by Eric Riley has its awkward moments, too, and the set by Edward T. Gianfrancesco is a bit flimsy-looking and insufficiently atmospheric. As a result, I’m not ready to bet on whether this somewhat unpolished bauble can glitter brightly enough to capture uptown audiences paying uptown prices (a $65 top).
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Gambling, as it happens, is central to the musical’s plot. That, along with its period setting, has invited comparisons to another tuner featuring gangsters and their molls, “Guys and Dolls.” Both shows share the same affectionate, slightly cartoonish approach to their respective milieus, and like that Frank Loesser classic, “Little Ham” opens with a catchy song devoted to the pleasures and anxieties of a particular form of gambling, in this case not horses but numbers.
As the residents of a Harlem neighborhood gather to place their numbers with Lucille (Cheryl Alexander), the no-nonsense proprietor of a small bet-taking establishment, we are introduced to the musical’s central character, a shoeshine boy with big dreams and a big name — Hamlet Hitchcock Jones (Andre Garner). Little Ham, as he is more comfortably known, gets his big break pretty quickly, when he comes to the aid of visiting white mobster Louie “The Nail” Mahoney (Richard Vida), in one of the plot’s clunkier developments.
Soon Little Ham is alienating the whole neighborhood, as Louie and his thug Rushmore, whose grunts are comprehensible only to his boss, start taking over all the little numbers games in the name of the larger mob concern. When they start asking for protection money, too, the locals wise up and fight back. With the help of Little Ham, who has been made to see the error of his ways by his beloved Tiny Lee (Monica L. Patton), and with an assist from Louie’s dissatisfied moll Sugar Lou Bird (Brenda Braxton) and her pansy pal Jimmy (Joe Wilson Jr.), Louie eventually is sent south for good.
Owens’ book is not always smooth as it unfurls this uptown fable, particularly in act two, when Louie’s comeuppance ends in confusion. Too many jokes land with a thud, and some of the humor, particularly the sassy sniping between Sugar Lou and the stereotypical queen Jimmy, is just a few steps above “chitlin circuit” level.
But the likable performances smooth over some of the rough spots. The delightful Braxton, a Tony nominee for “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” is a walking Hirschfeld cartoon in fantastic getups that turn Sugar Lou Bird into a strutting parakeet and a preening peacock. Her high-toned clowning as this show’s equivalent of Miss Adelaide is one of its prime pleasures, as are Bernard Grenier’s terrific costumes.
Patton, as Little Ham’s would-be paramour, the sweet but proper Tiny Lee, is an appealing performer, and her solo number, “Big Ideas,” is a standout. Alexander makes a fine, strong impression in her smaller role as Lucille, and the rest of the supporting roles are winningly, if sometimes broadly, played. There’s a little problem with Little Ham, however: Garner is certainly an affable presence in the role of the wily but good-hearted scammer, but his underpowered perf doesn’t fill the stage the way it needs to — such are the unexpected consequences of an uptown transfer.
In fact, the show as a whole struggles with the same trouble. It is always likable, but not, in the end, accomplished enough to smoothly strut its stuff on a larger stage. It’s too bad, because the score probably could: Woldin’s music handily marries Broadway colors and the soulfully swinging sounds of Duke Ellington, while the lyrics continually please with their effervescent but always natural humor and the ease of their rhyme schemes.
Here’s a taste, from “No,” in which Tiny and Jimmy tell Sugar Lou a thing or two about putting a man in his place: “When the man drops in for dinner/And you know what that’s about/Say your pantry’s locked and your fridge ain’t stocked/And your pilot light is out.” The score is amply stocked with similar songs that neatly capture the flavor of period, persons and places. When “Little Ham” is singing, in other words, it feels like a satisfying meal, but when it isn’t, it’s just small potatoes.