Simply Heavenly

Langston Hughes
Young Vic

In the 1950s when he wrote Simply Heavenly, Langston Hughes was known as the Poet Laureate of Harlem. Using a simple, predictable love story he was able to comment on life in Harlem and its many characters. In addition he was not afraid to address racial issues and press for greater equality.

Jesse Semple, well played by Rashan Stone, is a man who hasn't the money to pay for a divorce. He is in love with his girl, the clean-living Joyce, but cannot resist the seduction of the glamorous, gold-spangled Zarita. He is always heading for trouble and the company that he keeps makes it a certainty.

This is a moral tale and it is inevitable that good will out and everyone will live happily ever after, even the autobiographical writer, Boyd, who observes and comments from the edges - as an author has the right to do.

Under Josette Bushell-Mingo's direction, the production is well-paced with the four-piece jazz band on stage not afraid to drift from jazz through the blues and soul with a final stop-off in a jaunty gospel tune called John Henry which allows Stone to shine.

The real show-stealers though are Clive Rowe, with his scarily powerful voice and great wit, as Melon and soul-singer Ruby Turner as Miss Mamie. This mature couple are playing with love and make a great duo in every possible sense.

The best singing comes from Rowe and Turner as well as Cat Simmons as the girlfriend, Joyc, whose somewhat lifeless acting is more than compensated for by a beautiful voice. Nicola Hughes as Zarita has a sexy, smouldering stage presence and one can easily imagine why the weak-willed Jesse would find her irresistible.

While Hughes' book has few surprises, his language and lyrics are interesting - never afraid to address issues of race and social inequality - and they combine well with David Martin's music. Finally, there is a splendid set designed by Rob Howell, comprising a bar downstage with conveyor-belted bedrooms behind.

At its best, this show is great fun with a handful of show-stopping songs, in particular the title song and the gospel-based John Henry and some super tap-dancing from Jason Pennycooke.

It also has an unbelievable happy ending as the pauper Jesse suddenly becomes rich without explanation. Since this is a musical wonderland, such miracles need not be explained.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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