Langston Hughes, the poet laureate of Harlem, anticipating criticism of his characters, meets it head on. "I see no stereotypes," he says, "I see people." Simply Heavenly, premiered in New York in 1957, is a sentimental celebration of Harlem, its people and the blues. The show is based on the stories of Jesse B. Semple, an off-beat Mm-American, one of Hughes's most popular creations, and regularly used by him as a mouthpiece for his comments on race and racism. He preaches that the black man cannot go on endlessly using racism as an excuse and must face up to his obligations and be a man.
Jesse (charming Rhashan Stone), who is already going through an expensive divorce, which he cannot afford, loses his job in an industrial plant. Will he be able to marry his nice, wholesome, churchgoing girlfriend (Cat Simmons), despite the determined efforts of the local vamp (gloriously sent up by Nicola Hughes) to come between them? The naive story plays a secondary role to David Martin's tuneful score.
Clive Rowe and Ruby Turner, great big bundles of joy, make sweet music. Rowe, with a big smile, and a big heart, carries his melons, his drooping rose and his portly frame with considerable comic style. Dale Superville, cast as a down-and-out, has a memorable song in which he sings that even when every string in your guitar is broken, you can still hum the blues. Dancer Jason Pennycooke has a lively and engaging solo. Josette Bushell-Mingo's immensely likeable production, energetically choreographed by Paul J. Medford and set in Rob Howell's convincing neighbourhood bar, is simply heavenly.
I saw Ragtime in New York five years ago and have been longing to see this majorAmerican musical again ever since. The London production hasn't the lavish Broadway staging. I missed the colourful and elegant use of silhouette, old photographs, postcards, posters and period transport. I missed, too, the phalanx-like choreography, which so cleverly established the racial and social divisions and confrontations. Stafford Arima's new and more economical staging, relying on mime and lighting for its effects, nevertheless, works perfectly well and is certainly not going to spoil anybody's enjoyment.
Terrence McNally's book and Lynn Ahrens's lyrics are based on EL Doctorow's sprawling novel, a tum-of-the-century epic, covering the years 18951915, tracing the lives of three interlocking families: rich Protestant whites, poor Jewish immigrants, and down-trodden blacks. Fictional characters mix with real personages, such as Henry Ford, J P Morgan, Houdini and anarchist Emma Goldman. The subject matter is racism, capitalism, workers' strikes, arson and murder. The storylines, which both celebrate and criticise America. have a strong social conscience and become a heartfelt plea for honour and justice for the millions, black and white, who found only poverty and intolerance.
Ragtime music, haunting and taunting, a fusion of African and European musical traditions, was an expression of "the broken rhythm" of history and life. "I listened over and over to Scott Joplin's piano rag," said Doctorow, "so it is fitting that having gone from music to book, Ragtime now goes back to music again." Stephen Flaherty's score has firstrate songs and a superb act one choral finale. I have not heard such good singing outside of an opera house.
Maria Friedman brings dignity and selfless compassion to the white woman who adopts a black baby boy. Graham Bicldey gives a strong rags-to-riches performance as the silhouette artist who becomes a mogul in the burgeoning film industry. Kevin Morrow is incisive as the ragtime pianist, who when he cannot get justice for his vandalised car, turns terrorist. Rebecca Thornhill is delightful as the vaudeville girl on the swing.
Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (New London Theatre) parodies many musical styles — pop, vaudeville, country and western (with hoe-down), American ballad, calypso, tango, gospel, French chanson, 1920s musical comedy, and rock'n'roll, with Pharaoh transformed into a gyrating Elvis Presley. Bill Kenwright's production redefines kitsch and is rightly aimed at uncritical family audiences. Ilrn Rice's lyrics, infuriatingly, are not audible, droned by the amplifiers who prefer noise to music. Stephen Gately's Joseph, a cute slip of a lad, wears costumes, which do him no favours.
The Rat Pack: Live From Las Vegas (Haymarket Theatre) recreates a typical stage performance by Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin at the Sands Night Club in 1960. They got their nickname from Lauren Bacall. Their act relied on their camaraderie, ad-libbing wisecracks, horseplay and booze. The songs are great and the audience, most oddly, behaves as if they believe they really are watching Sinatra. Davis and Martin and not impersonators.
The proper home for Zipp! (Duchess Theatre) is the Edinburgh Festival fringe, where it began. Gyles Brandreth in fishnet stockings, suspender belt and golden codpiece is not a pretty sight.
Simply Heavenly plays at Young 14c until April 12. Box Office: 020 7928 6363. Ragtime plays at Piccadilly Theatre until May 31. Box Office: 020 7369 173.