Simply Heavenly, the musical about the Black community of Harlem in the 1950’s, with book and lyrics by the poet and playwright Langston Hughes and music by David Martin, is far from heavenly.
The story is so thin it is nothing more than mushy flimflam that is exceedingly dull. It concerns Jesse B. Semple, a man who has fallen in love with the prudish Joyce, however he cannot do the right thing and marry her because he first needs a divorce. He also has the problem of being unable to resist the wiles of the lubricous good time girl Zarita. Will Jesse finally get his divorce, resist Zarita, and marry Joyce? Do we care? I know I certainly didn’t.
This is hardly exhilarating stuff, and is certainly not helped by Rhashan Stone’s lack-lustre performance as Jesse. Stone fails to bring any devilish charm to his performance, and since he is not dashingly handsome, charm and lots of it is what is needed to make this character work. It is hard to understand why Joyce should be drawn to Stone’s Jesse, unless she is looking for someone equally as tiresome as herself, and why the lubricious Zarita, superbly played by Nicola Hughes, should be drawn to him remains an unfathomable mystery.
Gladly, Simply Heavenly has more to offer than this, and this tedious tale often takes place in a Harlem bar, which is customised by less priggish and far more interesting characters. Here soul flows, and you discover the real people that give birth to the Blues - a community struggling with poverty and prejudice, who find dignity and solace through their ability to express their sorrow through music.
It is in this bar, that Clive Rowe as Melon and Ruby Turner as Miss Mamie, lift this drab musical from the doldrums of monotony to the splendid heights of enthrallment. These two larger than life characters simply fill the stage with their personality, their ample bodily presence and stupendous singing voices. When they sing “Did You Ever Hear The Blues” I found myself willing to forgive all the drudgery I had to sit through to reach this point. Although Rowe and Turner are large people, their small nimble feet have no problem supporting their weight and both prove to be natty dancers. Their dancing may lack precision but it is full of infectious exuberant joy.
It is such a pity that there is so much dross for so little gold, but what gold there is, is pure 24 karat. If they dropped the musical and placed Clive Rowe and Ruby Turner into a cabaret this would be one first class act. At present it is sheer tediousness that happens to be gilded with the occasional flash of inspiration.
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Infectious pleasure."LYNN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "Not heavenly, but rather nice." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, " I enjoyed the piece even more than when I saw it at the Young Vic last year." MARC SHENTON for THE STAGE says, "Fresh and funny production." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "The warmest, most touching and vibrantly performed musical on the London stage."