The new production of Jamaica gives audiences a chance to hear a wonderful, nearly forgotten score by two of the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century. The songs still sound great, and they're presented by a very appealing cast. Too bad the changes the Prince Music Theater has made to fix Jamaica's weaknesses have nearly ruined it. In the end, this version of Jamaica is pleasant, but unfortunately it's not a must-see.
Jamaica's problems are rooted in its troubled genesis on Broadway in 1957. Legendary songwriters Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg (The Wizard of Oz) wrote a series of calypso-style tunes that lampooned American imperialism and commercialism, and Harburg teamed with Fred Saidy to write the book, tailoring it for the talents of Harry Belafonte. Then Belafonte took ill, and cantankerous producer David Merrick hired Lena Horne to starbut the authors didn't get a chance to rewrite the show for Horne. Instead, Merrick locked the songwriters out of the rehearsals, junked much of the book, and turned the show into a revue-style vehicle for Horne. Horne's star power turned the show into a hit (running nearly eighteen months), but the authors disavowed the result. It's rarely been revivedprobably because new Lena Hornes just don't turn up every day.
The Prince decided to turn Jamaica into something closer to the original authors' intentions. There's one big problem with that plan, however: The original book is now missing, so Claudia Perry has written a new one based on the authors' notes. Sadly, the new book is terrible. There's no snap to the dialogue, and many of the scenes are just brief, predictable setups for the Arlen/Harburg songs. Very little time is spent on satire; instead, Perry focuses on a boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl story that would have seemed trite on Broadway in 1927, let alone 1957. The satiric elements are relegated to a subplot carried by two supporting players (Dan Schiff as a pompous governor, and Sean Thompson as a slick New Yorker who tries to appropriate the islanders' land) who never mesh with the leads; they seem to be in a different show altogether. And there's not one trace of the wit and invention of Saidy and Harburg (who co-wrote the brilliant book for Finian's Rainbow); the most memorable moment in Perry's book is a crass, anachronistic joke about "make-up sex."
Actually, the book wouldn't seem so dumb if the songs weren't so smart. Arlen was a master of melody, and Harburg's clever lyrics are still delightful. John Baxindine's new Jamaican-style arrangements give the music a nice lilt, although the six-piece band sounds alarmingly thin. (The Prince has interpolated older Arlen/Harburg tunes into the show, with mixed results; "Down With Love" works nicely, but the classic "It's Only a Paper Moon" is too associated with the Depression era to fit convincingly into a 1950s Jamaican milieu.)
This production of Jamaica is full of terrific singers who do complete justice to the music. Barrett Doss is suitably sultry in Horne's role, and Julian A. Miller is charismatic as her love interest; their voices blend beautifully on their duets, and they play off each other well. So do Victor Rodriguez and Chanta C. Layton as the secondary, comic relief couple, although they don't have much comedy material to work with. And Darlene B. Young shows off a powerful gospel-style belt as the island's resident mystic.
Ozzie Jones' direction doesn't give this mishmash of a musical the vitality it needs. Some charming and energetic dancing (choreographed by Tania Isaac and Jumatatue Poe) heats things up from time to time, but it just isn't enough to break the lethargic mood. Jamaica only comes to life when the terrific singers give their all to the funny, rollicking tunes like "Incompatibility" and "Hooray For the Yankee Dollar." It's all very sweet and agreeable, and rather dull.
The Prince's aim in reviving Jamaica was, according to a press release, to "perhaps enable this piece by two giants of the American musical theater to find a place in the repertoire." It's a worthy goal; the score certainly deserves greater recognition. But if that's going to happen, the show needs further revisionand a book with a sense of humor worthy of Arlen, Harburg and Saidy. As it stands now, it isn't comforting to know that the plodding road to Jamaica is paved with good intentions.
Jamaica runs through Sunday, June 22, 2008. Ticket prices range from $40 to $55, and may be purchased by calling the Prince Music Theater box office at 215-569-9700, in person at 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, or online at www.princemusictheater.org.