It has a colorful story involving gambling and underworld crime, and focuses on the type of characters that could only ever be found in New York. But while it's tempting to compare Little Ham, the new musical at the John Houseman Theatre, to Guys and Dolls, the two shows are about as far removed from each other as the Runyonland setting of one and the Harlem streets of the other.
But whether Little Ham will be remembered as fondly (or performed as often) in fifty years as Guys and Dolls is today remains to be seen. Little Ham, for its virtues (and it does have them), doesn't possess the sharpness of vision or the incisive book and score that would seem to herald a new classic musical in the making. Little Ham is, at its best, good enough.
That being said, Little Ham does succeed at being enjoyable and cleverly constructed as far as it goes. It's just impossible not to wish that the book by Dan Owens, the music by Judd Woldin, and the lyrics by Richard Engquist Woldin had not gone further to make it the sizzling jazz age saga it so desperately wants to be.
The story itself is intriguing and rife with musical possibilities. Andre Garner plays Hamlet Hitchcock Jones, or Little Ham, who gets mixed up in the mafia that wants to cheat the people of Harlem out of as much of their money as possible. The gang is led by Louie "The Nail" Mahoney (Richard Vida) who is as concerned with his proper appearance (down, appropriately, to his fingernails) as he is squeezing cash from the residents of Harlem through extortion, fraud, and whatever other means are necessary.
But when Ham, caught between the mafia and his love for home and the beautiful salon owner Tiny Lee (Monica L. Patton), questions his position in the world, his thoughts and emotions coalesce into the searing "Get Back," an incredible finale for the first act that suggests greatness only barely hinted at elsewhere in the show. The moment is stunning and effective because it's so real, the essence of the integrated musical where emotion and music have no choice but to come together.
Little Ham never gets better than that. The first act contains two great numbers, the scintillating trio "No" and the self-assertion song "Cuttin' Out," put over by the delightful Brenda Braxton and a lengthy feather boa, but the rest apart from the eerily "Runyonland"-esque opening are not particularly distinctive. The score connects with the characters much better in the second act, with the particular highlight being "It's a Helluva Big Job" with the residents of Harlem enacting their plan to retake the streets. But even the more predictable numbers, such as the requisite gospel number "Angels," the near-torch song of Tiny's "Big Ideas," or the breathless dance showcase of "Say Hello to Your Feet" are difficult to resist completely.
It's in its style that Little Ham finds its biggest problem. Director Eric Riley doesn't always seem sure what the show is. Sometimes it feels like a traditional book musical, others an oversized musical fable, and still others like a vaudeville concept musical with the characters unnecessarily aware they're singing and dancing instead of displaying their emotions. The choreography by Leslie Dockery is occasionally jumbled and occasionally enervating, Edward T. Gianfrancesco's set of rotating storefronts simple but attractive, Bernard Grenier's costumes eye-catchingly bright, and Richard Latta's lights as joyful as the performers, but Riley never seems to find one unified way to bring all the elements seamlessly together.
Despite this, there are times where Little Ham is terrific fun, and where the devotion and energy of the cast is infectious, and that helps make up for some of the show's other shortcomings. Though Little Ham is never tremendously exciting or revelatory, it succeeds fairly often at giving its audience some good, clean entertainment, something which is never a bad thing.
Photo: Carol Rosegg