Transferred to the West End from the Young Vic, Josette Bushell-Mingo's production of Simply Heavenly is a joyous blast of a show and boasts a brighter assemblage of musical talent than you'll find, at the moment, on any other London stage.
Transferred to the West End from the Young Vic, Josette Bushell-Mingo's production of Simply Heavenly is a joyous blast of a show and boasts a brighter assemblage of musical talent than you'll find, at the moment, on any other London stage. But is this 1957 Broadway hit too feel-good for its own good, given its setting among the poor black habitués of a Harlem bar? A sniffy visitor declares to the regulars, "You're all stereotypes", whereupon Boyd, who is a surrogate for the author, Langston Hughes, responds, "In the book I'm writing, they're just folks." Is this a case, though, of trying to have it both ways in order to appeal to a mixed audience?
While the piece certainly can't be said to have smoothed the path for Malcolm X and Leroi Jones, it never lets you forget that its characters' lives are controlled by the off-stage white folk. The resident blues guitar-player is roughed up by the cops for trying to play in the street. Whites keep laying the hero, Jesse B Semple, off work. In one of the most pointed scenes, a draft card arrives for the youngest male, and Jesse launches into a visionary speech about how in the next war, the army is bound to be integrated. But as he warms to his theme, the festivities crumple and the other men start sloping off in silent scepticism. And Hughes keeps up the mischievous digs. Why is it, someone asks, that black people make the front page for rape and murder, but that no black person has ever been reported seeing a flying saucer? The show is wonderfully good-humoured but no sell-out.
The bits between the brilliant numbers tell the rather schematic story of a likeable factory hand, Semple (the gangly, irresistibly charming Rhashan Stone), who yearns to wed his churchy, ever-so-proper girlfriend, Joyce (Allyson Brown). It's a plot about the need for maturity. Will Jesse succeed in saving the money he needs to divorce his first wife and be able to resist the temptations of the witty Nicola Hughes's implacably predatory Zarita, the bar's bottle-blonde vamp? There aren't many surprises on the bumpy road to rose-tinted happiness. When Zarita and chums invade Jesse's bedsit for a boisterously bopping birthday celebration, you can rest assured that Joyce will arrive on cue, righteously returning his clean laundry.
The show regularly blows the roof off with its explosions of communal emotion in the ensemble numbers, backed by a superb quartet of musicians on sax, piano, double bass and percussion. When Clive Rowe, as the lovelorn melon man, and Ruby Turner, as the fiercely independent Miss Mamie, let rip in the sensational "Did You Ever Hear the Blues?", every hair on the back of your neck stands to attention. And the amply proportioned twosome are adorable, dancing cheek to cheek like a couple of dainty hippos. David Martin's score and Hughes's lyrics aren't over-burdened with originality, but this high-jiving cast infuses the proceedings with such infectious energy that the deficiencies are easy to overlook. After several escalating encores, the audience floats out of the theatre on a cloud of bliss.
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