Music by Harold Arlen
Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg
Book by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy
Directed & Choreographed by Keith Lee Grant
Music Director & pianist Jameel McKanstry
Bass: Dominic LaMorte
Percussion: Charles Kiger/Ashley Baier
Reeds: Michael Gennari Trumpet: Kurt Marcum
Daring for its time, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s 1957 parable sported an ethnically diverse cast (led by Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalban), a calypso-inflected score, and anti-establishment message. 60 years later, the show feels surprisingly fresh, dated only in the sense that its score (originally written for Harry Belafonte) reflect a 1950’s conception of Caribbean songcraft. To modern ears, accustomed to the cadences of reggae and world music, Arlen’s tunes sound more like they originated in the West 40’s than in the West Indies.
Content-wise, however, JAMAICA couldn’t be more relevant. Harburg, blacklisted at the time for refusing to name names, took a jaundiced view of Cold War America, and the show’s book takes aim globalism, disaster relief, nuclear threats, and a host of other topics that still preoccupy us today. Even evolution is skewered, as a group of monkeys, loathe to be associated with anything as uncivilized as mankind, dismiss Darwin’s theory as fake news.
Set on the fictional republic of Pigeon Island, JAMAICA begins with a brief tryst between a local teenage girl and a young American tourist on vacation with his folks. Both sets of parents make it very clear they are not in favor of the romance, but the kids sneak around and do it anyway. Soon the girl discovers she is pregnant, but only after the boy has left the island with no apparent plans to return. Flash forward to 20 years later. Mama (Corea “Cori” Robinson), is reaching a point where she can no longer control her daughter Savannah (Taylor-Rey “T-Rex” Rivera). The young woman’s beauty, and her headstrong ways, have become the talk of the village. She is courted by eligible bachelor Koli (Jason Johnson), the captain of a fishing boat, but Savannah has other ideas about her future. The only island she’s interested in is Manhattan, where she can hobnob with the glitterati and enjoy a lifestyle filled with modern conveniences – if only she can find a way to get there. Her ticket soon arrives in the form of Joe Nashua (Daniel Fergus Tamulonis), an New York businessman seeking to get rich quick in the jewelry business. All he needs is a few divers willing to risk being devoured by sharks in order to harvest Pigeon Island’s rich supply of pearls. While many of the islanders are seduced by Joe’s offer of Yankee dollars, Koli treats his arrival with consternation. In his view, the American clearly doesn’t have the community’s best interests – or Savannah’s – at heart. Further complications ensue when a fierce tropical storm hits the island, derailing Joe’s entrepreneurial ambitions and throwing the whole social order chaos. In the aftermath of the storm, all the characters reevaluate their priorities and Savannah begins to wonder, like another famous Arlen-Harburg heroine, if there really is no place like home.
With her dynamic personality and impressive vocal range, Rivera makes an ideal choice for the restless Savannah. Johnson’s tough, practical-minded Koli provides her with an apt foil. The supporting players each have a moment to shine, and they go at the task with talent and brio. Robinson’s powerhouse voice and Tamulonis’s tight timing add flavor to the mix, while Chris Price and Barbyly Noël bring their comedic skills to a romantic subplot involving a passionate government clerk and his standoffish desideratum. 12-year old scene stealer Treymal R. McClary is highly enjoyable as the scrappy street philosopher Quico. Under Keith Lee Grant’s snappy, exuberant direction, the ensemble members (Zuheila Jason, Isais Miranda, Yesenia Ortiz, and Hanna Ventura) coalesce into an inviting community. Mary Myers’ costumes burst with Caribbean color and flow easily with the dancers’ movements. There is only one aspect of the production that feels arbitrary. Throughout the evening, the numbers are embellished with video projections (a commonplace element in theater these days). Although animator Edward Corcino has fashioned some inspired imagery, it seems unnecessary to add extra visual layers to theatrical action that is already compelling. Less would have been more. This, however, is a minor drawback in a show that is otherwise “coconut sweet”.
JAMAICA continues through M3 24, 2018 at Harlem Repertory Theatre, 240 East 123rd Street New York, NY 10035. Tickets: 917-697-3555.