How could it be that a musical by Yip Harburg - who gave us the wonders of
The Wizard of Oz
- went unheard for half a century? The calypso show
, resurrected and adapted by the Prince Music Theater,
originally was written by Harburg and Harold Arlen for Harry Belafonte. When illness forced Belafonte to drop out, Lena Horne replaced him, and the show was rewritten as a star vehicle for her in 1957.
It was a dazzling cast, if not a dazzling vehicle: Ricardo Montalban, Ossie Davis and Alvin Ailey, all at the start of their fame, joined Horne, making her Broadway debut. Harburg, appalled by David Merrick's rewrites, subsequently disowned it.
The current version of
, adapted from original "notes" and Arlen and Harburg's perceived "intentions," not only lacks that star power, it seems wrongheaded in a slew of ways. I spent most of the first act wondering how things were in Glocca Morra, since things in Jamaica sure were dull. Act 2 perks up considerably, although why it was decided to import the wonderful but ludicrously inappropriate Arlen/Harburg song "It's Only a Paper Moon" is a question worth asking. (It's a tropical island, for crying out loud, not a "Barnum & Bailey world" or "honky-tonk parade.")
The plot, ramshackle as it is, takes place on a Caribbean island where everyone lives a simple life (the condescension of much of this - premise and portrayal - may make you cringe). Savannah (the excellent Barrett Doss) is a great cook but she wants to see the world and "spread her wings" and "fly like an eagle" (the cliches do pile up). Her boyfriend, a fisherman (Julian A. Miller), likes things simple and old-fashioned (i.e., me husband/you wife).
The second couple are the big-voiced and just altogether big Ginger (Chanta C. Layton) and her short, funny boyfriend, Victor Rodriguez (why the women in the cast are all taller than the men is another puzzle). Mama Obeah, played by Darlene B. Young, whose voice is thrilling, casts spells and dishes out wisdom.
- at last! conflict! - Joe (Sean Thompson) arrives: a greedy corporate type who cons the also greedy governor (Dan Schiff) - note that they are the only white people in the show - into deeding all the beachfront and all the riches of the island to him for commercial development. But a storm, conjured up by Mama Obeah, wrecks his plans, and everybody gets back to being happy and tropical, cooking and fishing, dancing and smooching.
(Having just returned from the Caribbean, where the major industry of the islands, including Jamaica, and many of the impoverished countries of Central America is tourism, I was struck by how much this show could have said but didn't.)
There are a few lively songs, especially the big production numbers that begin and end Act 2, "Noah" and "Ain't It the Truth," but very little of the music sounds calypso. Ossie Jones' direction lacks focus and cohesion; scenes seem to happen all over the stage.
The choreography is repetitious and uninteresting (there's one production number that illustrates "For Every Fish" that is almost too embarrassing to watch), and the set looks like a tourist's T-shirt - garish colors, fake palm tree, etc.
In sum, "My grandma went to Jamaica and all I got was . . ."
Through June 22 at Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St. Tickets $40-$55. Information: 215-569-9700 or