We're clearly not in Kansas anymore. In Jamaica, the songwriters of The Wizard of Oz have transported us to a rural fishing community where the humor is broad, the costumes colorful, the rhythms calypso - and the inhabitants improbably rhyme Pagliacci and Liberace.
The New Freedom Theatre's revival of the 1957 Broadway musical, an idiosyncratic theatrical artifact, is energetic, athletically danced, vocally uneven, and often unabashedly over the top. Director-choreographer Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, who first tackled the piece off-Broadway in 2001, has imbued this production with charm and high spirits, but not quite enough polish or finesse. (Maharaj, Freedom's guest artistic director, also co-designed the brightly hued set.)
With a book by E.Y. "Yip" Harburg and Fred Saidy, lyrics by Harburg and music by Harold Arlen, Jamaica originally was written for Harry Belafonte, who withdrew because of illness. The Broadway production instead starred Ricardo Montalbán and Lena Horne, along with Ossie Davis and Alvin Ailey. It garnered seven Tony nominations.
Even then, it was something of a throwback - 14 years after Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! made the case for a more organic, integrated book musical, Jamaica used song and dance less to drive its insubstantial plot or define its characters than to establish atmosphere and entertain.
Alongside lovely romantic tunes ("Savannah," "Coconut Sweet," "Take it Slow, Joe," "Pity the Sunset"), and calypso and gospel rhythms, Harburg and Arlen juxtaposed wryly satirical numbers tweaking American consumerism, the atom bomb, modernity, and the evanescence of fame ("Napoleon's a pastry, Bismarck is a herring. . . . And Herbie Hoover is a vacuum").
The show is animated by the same simple credo as Rent - roughly, "Seize the day." What story there is involves a mashup of (would-be) immigrant yearning, Caribbean superstition, greed, lust, and natural disaster.
The yearning is embodied by a young woman named Savannah (an engaging but vocally challenged Aneesa Neibauer), who envisions life in a New York where every convenience is available at the push of a button. The man she loves, Koli (a likable Shabazz Green), loves her, too, but prefers the lower-key comforts of island life and his new fishing boat, Desdemona, to the lure of the American dream. Why move to New York, Koli reasons, when New Yorkers can't wait to come to Jamaica on vacation? Then a rival, Joe Nashua (Walter DeShields), a New York businessman, appears on the scene, hoping to convert the island's pearls into a lucrative enterprise and Savannah into his wife.
The low comedy is supplied by another pair of on-again, off-again lovers: Cicero (Reji Woods nails the role) and Ginger (LaTasha S. Morris, the show's musical director), who seems to throw herself at every man in sight. Morris has great presence, but her diction is muddy, and her outlandish, gesturally repetitive portrayal of a woman in heat is more painful than funny.
Millie Hiibel's vibrant costumes, the lively onstage band, and, above all, the sizzling dancing help keep Jamaica aloft. Not to mention a rising seventh-grader and Freedom Theatre student named Courtney "CJ" Mitchell, who is also a rising star. He plays Savannah's venturesome younger brother, Quito, with Broadway-level panache.
Jamaica. New Freedom Theatre, 1346 N. Broad Street. Tickets: $20-$35. Information: 888-802-8998, www.freedomtheatre.org.