Langston Hughes’s Little Ham
Art Forms & Theatre Concepts
Running through Oct. 10
Adults $20, Seniors & Students $15
Dock Street Theatre
135 Church St., 723-5399

It’s Harlem, 1936, with the Depression hammering businesses and ruthless gangster Louie “The Nail” Mahoney hitting them even harder. But that doesn’t stop the characters of Little Ham from dancing.

Art Forms and Theatre Concepts’ MOJA production opens with the cast dancing in a row in front of a black curtain, each defined by his costume and the way he moves. Although they all follow the same basic dance steps, they bring their own personalities to the pattern. There’s Hamlet “Ham” Hitchcock Jones (Antwan Crawford), sleeves and pants legs rolled up to make him look gawky; Jimmy (Warnell Berry Jr.), mincing around as befits his flamboyantly gay character; and a street cop (Patrick Dugan), beating time with his baton. Louie (Delvin L. Williams) struts past them all, inspecting his would-be victims. It’s a slick way to introduce the characters, and one of the few highlights of the first act.

Much of the action takes place in Lucille’s shoeshine place, where Ham works and dreams of finding his fortune and a “Sunday woman” to spend it on. Lucille’s husband Leroy enjoys giving Ham a hard time, but the young hero can’t really be blamed for not getting much work done — all of the characters visit the place to gossip or to gamble.

Louie wants some of Lucille’s action — and a share of every other business in town. He even wants to run a protection racket on Tiny Lee’s beauty parlor (another inventive set from designer Tripp Storm). Once Louie recruits Ham as a hoodlum-in-training, that creates a dilemma for the title character — he loves Tiny. But how can he help her if he’s riddled with holes by Louie’s growling associate, Rushmore?

This is a fairy-tale version of Harlem, and Ham’s got more than a touch of Cinderella about him, going from rags to riches at the wave of a crooked wand. He even gets to the ball — the Hello Club Ball, where he has choreographer Alisha Simmons to help him out, drawing on original 1930s dances to keep him in step. While the few fight scenes in Little Ham seem poorly staged and actors occasionally block each other from view, the dancing’s a strong point.

As Ham, Crawford is like Chris Rock with acting chops, handling the singing and comedy well. Lisa Robinson’s Tiny Lee matches his talents, and she’s only hampered by an overly restrictive costume. Warnell Berry Jr. does what he can with his contritely campy character, whose too-short solo hints at great talent. Similarly, Jimmy’s friend Sugar Lou Bird (Lea S. Anderson) does what she can with her role as the gangster’s moll with a heart of gold.

Not everyone in the cast can sing. Williams creates a memorably vain and menacing bad guy, but has particular trouble hitting his low notes. Larchmont (played by Zorba Breshers) and Clarence (Nicholas James) are also off-key, and Opal (Juanita B. Green) can’t be heard over the live five-piece band.

Compared to Gilliard’s previous musicals and despite the best efforts of the cast, the first act of Ham seems disappointingly flat, failing to fully engage the audience. The whole show feels under-rehearsed. A little extra work on the songs, sets, and storytelling would have helped immensely. The gospel-styled “Angels” wakes the audience up at the top of Act Two, which moves a lot faster and has stronger songs than the first half. It’s as if the cast realizes it has to boost its efforts and sing together to assist the weaker vocalists. Like their characters, they achieve goals in unison that they couldn’t hope to alone.

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