Little Ham, currently on the boards at Anthony Bean Community Theater, is called a "jazzicle," which sounds like something that would be frozen on a stick and sold on the streets by a French Quarter ice cream vendor. The association is apt. This confection is chock-a-block with delectable empty calories. The story, based loosely on a play by Langston Hughes, doesn't make much sense. And the characters offer few surprises -- except for a heavy named Rushmore, who is trapped in some preverbal stage of evolution. But look, if you want protein, you don't flag down the ice cream man. And Little Ham is a joyful summertime treat with a great band, catchy tunes and some vibrant performances.
The play is set in the midst of the Great Depression. A street scene gives us a taste of the raffish world of the Harlem Renaissance. It also gives us a taste of Leo Jones' choreography. Jones, who is best known for his work at NORD Theater, has a knack for combining "those who can" with "those who don't think they can" in bouncy, inventive little routines that look like they're fun to do and certainly are fun to watch.
Soon, the action moves inside to a numbers parlor, run by the prepossessing Miss Lucille (Sandra Richards). We meet her husband, Leroy (Michael Harris), and her circle of friends and customers (Raheem Drummonds, Tory Andrus, Jyna Roots, Donna King and Dana Webba). Miss Lucille's is a smalltime, locally owned and operated business. And these Harlemites are all basically gentle and well-meaning folk. The neighborhood is more like a village than an outpost of urban misery and violence.
One of Miss Lucille's associates is a shoe-shine boy and smalltime hustler named Hamlet Hitchcock Jones (Darrin Carkum). Ham has his eye on Tiny Lee (the lovely Lakeisha Michelle Lawrence), a hairdresser with her own beauty salon. Tiny has struggled mightily from an early age to build herself a secure and respectable life. She is attracted to Ham, but disapproves of his ways. She quashes his flirtatious advances with an arctic blast of primness.
Trouble arrives in the form of a fastidious white gangster named Louie "The Nail" Mahoney (Michael Shultz) and Rushmore (Kevin Hubble), his inarticulate enforcer. Louie is a mid-level hood in a crime combine that has decided to take over the lucrative Harlem numbers trade. He offers Miss Lucille the advantages of the combine's assistance; namely, they pay off the crooked police force in exchange for 90 percent of the take. Leroy becomes enraged and tries to throw the mobsters out. He is about to be iced by Rushmore, but the quick-thinking Ham knocks him down -- thereby saving his life. Louie, who misunderstands Ham's action, thinks the youngster's got potential and dragoons him into the combine.
The life of organized crime has some monetary advantages, but it really puts the kibosh on Ham's courtship. Tiny tells him she won't go with him to the dance contest at the Hello Club unless he quits the combine. Unfortunately, as Ham soon learns, you only resign from the combine, attired -- as they say -- in a concrete kimono.
Ham invents a complex strategy for hitting a big number and getting Louie in dutch with his higher-ups. All of the habitués of Miss Lucille are enlisted in this highly synchronized caper -- including Sugar, Louie's appropriately named horizontal dance instructor. The scheme works. The mob gives up. The Harlemites triumph. And everyone is free to get on with the dance contest and love and live "happily ever after."
The plot is make-believe, with a vengeance. And it doesn't gain strength from the vagueness of the central character. Carkum plays Ham with sincerity, but bringing the role to convincing life would be a challenge even for an old pro overflowing with charisma.
Fortunately, the flaws in the show are easily overbalanced by the pluses. The cast gets you swaying in your seat and tapping your feet time and again -- in solos, duets and ensemble numbers. Sandra Richards gives heart and soul in an unexpected "Slow Boat to China," among other songs. Lawrence gives us a hint of hidden fire in the repressed Tiny. Idella Johnson's Sugar is a 100 percent pure organic delight -- and make that two lumps, if you don't mind. Maestro (that's what it says in the playbill) adds to the fun as her flaming sidekick.
Anthony Bean's staging is generally clean, simple and effective. And Trish McClain's marvelous costumes add a convincing touch of glamour to the proceedings.
In brief: if the story's a little hammy, the music's great.
- The cast of Little Ham shakes it up, from left: Maestro, Sandra Richards, Darrin Carkum, Lakeisha Lawrence and Donna King.