Little Ham, the jazzy Langston Hughes-inspired musical that's being considered an uptown Guys and Dolls, opens Off-Broadway Sept. 26 following previews that started Sept. 12 at the John Houseman Theatre on 42nd Street.
Brenda Braxton, Tony Award-nominated for Smokey Joe's Café plays Sugar Lou in the Harlem-set musical. She is joined by Cheryl Alexander, Howard Kaye, Christopher L. Morgan and Monica L. Patton, who, like Braxton, are new additions to the troupe that played a brief Off-Broadway test run at the Hudson Guild Theatre in late 2001.
The show's full title is Langston Hughes's Little Ham, billed as "A Harlem Jazzical." Its source is the play of the same name by Hughes (1902-67), the towering African-American poet, novelist, playwright and lyricist. Eric Riley directs the show, which has a book by Dan Owens, music by Judd Woldin (Raisin) and lyrics by Woldin and Richard Engquist (Kuni Leml, Abie's Island Rose).
The company includes D'Ambrose Boyd, Venida Evans, Jerry Gallagher, Andre Garner (in the title role), Julia Lema, Joy Styles, Lee Summers, Richard Vida, Joe Wilson, Jr. (Boyd, Evans, Gallagher, Garner, Lema, Styles, Summers, Vida and Wilson all return from the 2001 production.)
* "In 1936, the Harlem Renaissance is in full swing," according to production notes. "Nattily dressed street hustlers keep time to the sharp popping of shoeshine rags while hard-working locals relax by dancing and listening to the music of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Small time numbers games allow people to dream of luxuries beyond the reach of The Great Depression. When the downtown mob threatens to take over the uptown numbers game, they find the perfect ally in Hamlet Hitchcock Jones — also known as Little Ham. Ham is a smooth operator with fast feet and a quick wit. Coerced by Louie 'The Nail' Mahoney and the lure of big money, Ham goes to work for the mob. Assigned the duty of shaking down Tiny Lee's Beauty Shop, Ham must find a way to double cross the mob or risk betraying the girl he loves and abandoning his Harlem roots forever."
Producer Eric Krebs initiated the project in 1985 and took it through various drafts, including a 1987 staging at George Street Playhouse in New Jersey. The most recent incarnation of the musical began in an Off-Off-Broadway arrangement by Amas Musical Theatre Nov. 14, 2001, at the 99-seat Hudson Guild Theatre. Krebs gave the show an extension to an Off-Broadway contract to make refinements and offer the press more chances to see it. It closed Jan. 6, 2002, after earning encouraging reviews. Joining Krebs as co-producers are Ted Snowden, Martin Hummel, entitled entertainment and Amas Musical Theatre.
Musical direction is by David Alan Bunn, choreography is by Leslie Dockery, and orchestrations and arrangements are by Luther Henderson. Designers are Edward T. Gianfrancesco (set), Bernard Grenier (costume) and Richard Latta (lighting).
Krebs (Broadway's It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, Electra) previously told Playbill On-Line the musical is filled with pungent characters typical of the folk who populated works by Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other Harlem Renaissance writers. Krebs got the rights to the work from the Hughes estate in 1985.
"It's fun and funny and warm and beautifully inspired by Langston's characters," Krebs said. "What first attracted me was not the story, which is substantially new by the book writer, Dan Owens. But the characters and language — the warmth, the spirit and energy of the community as Hughes wrote it."
Krebs calls it a musical comedy fable — the sort of show with tap-dancing gangsters.
Arranger-orchestrator Henderson has worked on more than two dozen Broadway productions in various capacities. For Ain't Misbehavin' he was the original pianist as well as orchestrator, arranger and musical supervisor. For Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, he was the musical consultant and arranged several selections. Henderson orchestrated and co-composed Jelly's Last Jam. He was nominated for a Tony Award in 1997 for orchestrating Play On!
The high-spirited score, flecked with bluesy ballads, includes "I'm Gonna Hit Today," "It's All in the Point of View," "Stick With Me, Kid," "No," "Get Yourself Some Lovin'," "That Ain't Right," "Cuttin' Out," "Room for Improvement," "Get Back," "Harlem, You're My Girl," "Angels," "Big Ideas," "It's a Helluva Big Job," "Wastin' Time," "Say Hello to Your Feet."
Performances play 8 PM Tuesdays-Saturdays with matinees 2 PM Wednesdays and Saturdays and 3 PM Sundays. Tickets are $65 and may be purchased by calling Tele-charge at (212) 239-6200 or by visiting the John Houseman Theatre box office. The John Houseman Theatre is at 450 W. 42nd Street.
— By Kenneth Jones