Review: ‘Jamaica’-bound, and with a calypso beat

Shabazz Green and Aneesa Niebauer in New Freedom Theatre's production of 'Jamaica.' (Photo courtesy of ethimofoto.net)

Shabazz Green and Aneesa Niebauer in New Freedom Theatre's production of 'Jamaica.' (Photo courtesy of ethimofoto.net)

The storm that whips up at the end of the first act of “Jamaica,” the musical that opened Thursday night at New Freedom Theatre, is a doozy. It’s concocted by the cast and the nimble four-piece combo that accompanies them, without much help from lighting or sound – a tempest made by people.

As stage-storms go, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s thrilling. Actors and dancers move like the wind and careen across the stage, mirroring the ferocity of elements that shatters their fictional island off Jamaica.

It’s the highlight of New Freedom Theatre’s energetic if uneven production of “Jamaica,” which opened on Broadway in 1957, with a book by Yip Harburg and Fred Saidy and a score by Harburg and Harold Arlen. Lena Horne made her Broadway debut as Savannah, the young woman desperate to escape the island to the modern comforts of New York City. The cast included Ossie Davis, Ricardo Montalban and the lead dancer, a 26-year-old named Alvin Ailey. It ran two years and had a swollen cast of 45.

You don’t need that many people to bring off this pleasant, light-headed calypso musical and believe me, the 15 cast members on New Freedom’s make for a busy island. Mostly barefoot and dressed in Millie Hiibel’s handsome island clothes, they sing songs about sweet coconuts, the Yankee dollar, Noah and his ark and the atomic age – simple short songs that, a day later, I’m still humming. “Jamaica” is a fun night, easy to take. At times it seems more like a revue of songs than a show.

On this tightly-knit island, a fisherman named Koli (Shabazz Green with a redolent voice) is in love with Savannah (Annesa Neibauer, sweet as a tropical fruit and sometimes on key), but she has eyes for New York. Along comes a New York businessman (Walter DeShields) who’s all big-city bluff and looking to make a killing in pearls caught off the island. He wouldn’t mind catching Savannah, either. Then comes the storm, and Savannah’s little brother is washed away. The businessman is scared to death of the tropic’s vagaries, but not Koli, who runs to the sea in a rescue attempt.

And that’s about the extent of the plot, which is moved along cleverly by the show’s many songs. Or at least I think it is – I had trouble catching the lyrics to many of the songs, for two reasons: they were overwhelmed often by the accompanying orchestra and they were sung with a peanut-butter-thick Caribbean accent. The big thing missing from director/choreographer Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj’s production is a dialect coach. The two leads often speak as if they were in a Jamaican-English-as-a-Second-Language course – ploddingly, as if every syllable is its own word. LaTasha S. Morris, conversely, speaks so quickly (and loudly) that much of the dialogue is lost in her clownish role of the layabout islander with a big heart.

The supporting cast is up to the task: Deborah Billups as a wise grandma (and far too young to be playing one), Reji Woods as an islander who assumes a lot of clout as the show moves on, and a fabulous seventh-grader from The Philadelphia School named Courtney “CJ” Mitchell. He plays Savannah’s brother, and he’s a ball of energy with a fine voice and spot-on moves, and whenever he’s on the stage the show picks up a notch or two.

Not that it’s down there in the deep waters. This production of “Jamaica,” for any of its faults, is notable for its heart, its pleasant ensemble of eight other actors, and its very appearance on the stage. “Jamaica” is not frequently produced. Some of Maharaj’s production may not do it full justice – too many pratfalls and hammy moves also come to mind – but he endowed it with an exciting mix of African and classic stage choreography that the dancers bring off easily, and a feel for isolated island life.

Plus, it’s great to see New Freedom producing again after many years of a spotty schedule. Its training program has never fallen short – young Courtney “CJ” Mitchell is a sure example of that – and its revived determination to produce work is a happy addition to Philadelphia’s theatrical landscape._”Jamaica” runs through June 26 at New Freedom Theatre, 1346 N. Broad Street, at Master Street. 888-802-8998 or www.freedomtheatre.org.

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