Charles Strouse and Lee Adams's 1964 musical about a black boxer's fight against exploitation, female treachery and his own weakness isn't a neglected masterpiece, but it's a likeable, entertaining show that Rick Jacobs has adapted and directed with some success. Jason Pennycooke as Joe Wellington (changed from Joe Bonaparte in the Clifford Odets play) is hesitant about the struggle needed to reach the top until Lorna, his manager's girlfriend, sweet-talks him into going on the road. But Lorna is following her man's orders. She isn't really keen on Joe - not, that is, at first.
The score is nicely varied, with let's-go-to-the-hop bounce, lush bluesy songs, and an anthem, "No More", that starts out as a chain-gang-style lament and develops into a rousing gospel number. The choreographer Mykal Rand provides lively, jitterbugging dances and solos in which Pennycooke shines, his muscular,lithe figure expressive of anguish and joy. Alana Maria, all ladylike elegance as Joe's sister, lets rip with a thrilling voice in the final scene, and Omar F Okai as her husband has a laid-back charm.
Where Golden Boy is weak is in its story and the acting of the principals. Sally Ann Triplett as Lorna puts across her torch songs in a rich, powerful voice, but lacks their yearning emotion. Worse, the book scarcely gives her any character to play. Once considered out of date for its depiction of racism, Golden Boy has also been criticised, throughout its numerous rewrites, for making Lorna too unpleasant or too servile. Here she remains unsympathetic, and the chemistry between her and Joe is nonexistent.
If Pennycooke does not convince us that he has the hots for Lorna, still less is he, with his pleading, worried looks, plausible as a prizefighter, especially the "killer" he is claimed to be. Even when decking two troublemakers who call him "nigger", he seems only mildly put out.
It's characteristic of this production that the thugs who insult Joe are black. The show's biggest problem is its slight, deracinated book. Jacobs seems to have dealt with the story's difficulties by excising them. There is no indication that it is set at a time when a black man could be jailed for having relations with a white woman - if he lived that long. As a result this version feels dated as well as dishonest.
The sharpest acknowledgment of racial tensions is in a comic song, the catchiest in the show, called "Don't Forget 127th Street". In this ironic hymn to Harlem, Pennycooke joins with the others in praising the dear old slum, then flings at the audience, "the place that white folks think we love".
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