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Jamaica’ at New Freedom Theatre

3 minute read
Colorful costumes and calypso tunes. (Photo by
Colorful costumes and calypso tunes. (Photo by

Given election-year controversy regarding immigration and the success of Broadway’s Hamilton, about a certain immigrant from the Caribbean, a revival of Jamaica is quite timely. The musical’s premise is even more relevant now than it was when it was new.

The show, which opened in 1957, follows Savanna, a Jamaican woman who wants to move to New York for its material pleasures, while an American entrepreneur comes to Jamaica to build profitable tourist attractions.

The authors of this show were particularly suited to the topic. With Finian’s Rainbow, Yip Harburg and Fred Saidy were outspoken critics of racism. Flahooley excoriated the excesses of capitalism. The Happiest Girl in the World took on U.S. imperialism. Bloomer Girl advocated for women’s rights. Their composer colleague, Harold Arlen, also identified with politically progressive causes.

Big numbers, little message

Harburg and Saidy's script contained sharp attacks against commercialization, materialism, and exploitation of the non-white islanders, but producer David Merrick drastically cut it, transforming the show into a revue spotlighting Lena Horne. Its real guts were excised and the show was reduced to a series of big numbers. Its original co-star, Harry Belafonte, dropped out, and his reduced role was taken by young Ricardo Montalbán. (The featured role of Savanna’s grandmother, Grandma Obeah, was filled by Adelaide Hall, who was in the original 1921 cast of Shuffle Along, revived this year on Broadway.)

This production follows the altered Broadway script. Director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj emphasizes flashy dancing, colorful costumes (designed by Millie Hiibel), and a tunestack of 18 songs. The singing and dancing are pleasurable reminders of Freedom Theatre productions from its glory days, such as Black Nativity and Lazarus Unstoned, and it’s good to see this honored institution back in business.

Arlen’s music is mainly calypso, plus a blues ballad written for Horne, and a lovely song with a beguine rhythm, “Take It Slow, Joe.” Listen to Harburg’s lyrics and you’ll hear arguments against nuclear proliferation, as in the song “Leave the Atom Alone.” His witty rhymes include “incompatibility” with ”jack-and-jillitty.”

He preaches against materialism: “Would a monkey do what silly man will do?/Live in de jungle of Madison Avenue/Fight his neighbors with a gun and a knife/Love his horses and divorce his wife?”

But you have to listen hard to get the social justice points. The dialogue that set up the songs was largely cut by Merrick in 1957.

Ripe for a revival

The adorable Aneesa Neibauer plays Savannah. She’s youthful and lithe, and her dance lifts surpass anything of which the 40-year-old Horne was capable. Shabazz Green is her fisherman boyfriend, Koli, who’s content with the tranquil life on their island. Walter DeShields, as the entrepreneur Joe, arrives from New York City, filled with schemes to develop Jamaica for his enrichment. He also makes a play for Savannah and she, for a while, responds.

What’s left of the book is a flimsy romantic triangle, with secondary characters engaged in low comedy. LaTasha S. Morris’ Ginger has a powerful singing voice but her performance is outrageously broad. Reji Woods, as her reluctant boyfriend Cicero, displays impressive high notes.

Young dancers provide many of the production’s brightest spots. Their athleticism is impressive, especially in a hurricane sequence choreographed by Maharaj. Cast members tumble and somersault across the stage as if buffeted by the storm.

While enjoying the sparkling moves, I kept yearning to see attention paid to the vision of Harburg and Saidy. Their original script, before the alterations that were imposed by the moneymen, is available through the Yip Harburg Foundation.

Without a singular star like Horne, Jamaica has never been considered for a Broadway revival. Small-scale productions like Freedom Theatre’s are pleasant diversions. But presenting Jamaica as just a colorful songfest and travelogue is missing a great opportunity.

What, When, Where

Jamaica, book by Yip Harburg and Fred Saidy, lyrics by Harburg, music by Harold Arlen. Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj directed. Through June 26, 2016 at New Freedom Theatre, 1346 N. Broad St., Philadelphia. (888) 802-8998 or

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