"Reggae," which had its official opening last night at the Biltmore, is a simpleminded little musical and a surprisingly bland one in view of the fact that it celebrates that Jamaican brand of rock from which it gets its name, and which appears to have developed within the Rastafarian sect.
Stringing together the more than two dozen songs laid down by the principals, the singing-and-dancing ensemble, and the lively band visible in the wings is the story of Faith, a hot U.S. recording and concert star who has returned to her native Jamaica to pick up on the new sounds.
Unfortunately, the old bunch - this includes a former boyfriend still devoted to her; the religious group worshipping the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie (known as Ras Tafari before becoming the Lion of Judah); and a leather gang engaged in gun-running financed by the sale of "ganja" (marijuana) - suspect that the sleek and chic Faith is only there to exploit their music, which seems likely. It isn't until late in the day (yes, all this takes place in a single day!), following a Rastafarian religious ritual, that she sees the shining ideal behind the squalor of the Jamaican slums. Just what she sees, however, is unclear.
The whole thing ends in a night club, where "Reggae" probably belonged in the first place, and with everybody bouncing about to a disco beat while singing "Reggae Music Got Soul."
I got restless. The songs are uncomplicated and cheerful and occasionally pretty, as in a number entitled "Everything That Touches You (Touches Me)." But they're also fairly trivial, in one ear and out the other in spite of that beat.
The cast is engaging, with Sheryl Lee Ralph the lacquered, nubile Faith; Philip Michael Thomas as her adoring Esau; Calvin Lockhart as the sect leader; and Obba Babatunde as the cynical gang boss whose "dreadlocks" (lank lengths of unkempt hair, purportedly dictated by a passage from Leviticus beginning "They shall not make baldness upon the hair," and that might just conceivably have been misinterpreted all these years) are for show.
But I was most taken by a rubber-legged eccentric dancer and singer named Ras Karbí, who plays an illiterate hill farmer named Natty, and by the extraordinarily supple and wiry Alvin McDuffie, a silent figure known as Anancy, the Spider, who keeps reappearing in spidery poses and who calls to mind last season's similarly emblematic figure, El Pachuco, in "Zoot Suit."
Somewhere toward the start, the show's sole white performer, a young man impersonating a silly tourist, stood out as he posed in the middle of a group photograph, but I don't recall spotting him again all evening. I suppose he felt lost in this crowd and returned to his ship with his souvenir photo.
The ensemble singing and dancing, though elementary, is spirited. Though the simple setting and expert lighting suit the enterprise, most of the money seems to have been lavished on Raoul Pene Du Bois' colorful costumes, especially those for the men which include some gilt-edged scraps for near-naked-worshippers in the religious ceremony.
"Reggae" is a silly show, a "musical revelation," as it is subtitled, disclosing little of interest.
One nice thing about going to the theater every night is that you live and learn. Last night at the Biltmore Theater a new musical, Reggae opened, and it certainly taught me a great deal I did not know about Reggae music, Jamaica where it comes from, and the new-Christian religious sect of the Rastafarians, who believe in the divinity of the late Haile Selassie, Lion of Judah and former Emperor of Ethiopia. In fact, I think I learned rather more than I wanted to know.
Reggae has been produced by Michael Butler, the Broadway producer of Hair, and there are certain similarities between the two musicals. Both concentrated on a style of music - in the case of Hair it was a pop version of rock - both possessed very simple, almost vestigial stories, and both offered tourist trips to unfamiliar subcultures. The American hippie has here been replaced by the Jamaican Rastas. Both smoked a lot of grass - here called Ganja - and an inherent part of the religion practices.
Reggae has been five years in the making, and it is now credited with three people responsible for its book and seven composers for its score. For so many cooks it seems a rather simple broth. A Jamaican pop singer, Sheryl, returns to her home to meet a former boyfriend, who is a marijuana farmer. She also encounters a number of other Rastafarians, including a marijuana gangster, a priest, a holy innocent, and an unsympathetic reggae singer, who is a "cleanface," and bald. The others, apart from the hero for some reason, wear their hair uncut and uncombed in the curly religious fashion known as "dreadlocks."
You see how much I learned. We are shown certain Rastafarian rituals, including some almost harem-style dances, and we hear a great deal of reggae music - some I suspect a great deal more authentic than the rest.
The dialogue is simplistic, the plot simply simple, and the virtue of the show lies solely in the comparative strangeness of the music, though the reggae beat is making its presence felt elsewhere, particularly in certain English rock groups. Perhaps most interesting is the light it throws on this religious cult which is becoming more and more important in Jamaica, and could easily become significant in this country.
Rastafarians - partly inspired by the teaching of the late Marcus Garvey, a controversial figure of the '30s - condemn commercialism as what they call Babylon, believe that they are the Bible's "chosen people," and that transported blacks should return to Africa. They also believe in the spiritual and healing properties of marijuana.
The show itself was a muddle. It is almost more like a party after the first night than the first night itself. The music varied alarmingly in quality - some of it being very good indeed - the parable of a story was uninteresting, and the show looked half-baked on a Caribbean sidewalk.
As the heroine Sheryl Lee Ralph wandered through the proceedings with a pout of perpetual surprise on her glossy lips, but Philip Michael Thomas, in a straighforward fashion, had more appeal as the hero. The best singing probably came from Sam Harkness, while Calvin Lockhart is a convincing priest, Ras Karbi (one of the composers) makes a charming innocent, and Obba Babatunde is most impressive as the bully-boy Rockets.
Reggae is doubtlessly more seriously intended than it will be taken. However, it is too murky, too diffuse, too poorly-amplified, and far too uneven to be normally acceptable Broadway entertainment. Perhaps five years was not enough.
In "Reggae," the producer, Michael Butler, has attempted a Broadway synthesis of the sound of reggae, a kind of Jamaican rock-and-roll, and the message of Rastafarianism, a cultist religious belief that seeks "repatriation" to the Garden of Eden in Ethiopia. For Mr. Butler, who presented "Hair" on Broadway, this is his second hirsute musical; the characters in "Reggae" are crowned with long, moplike "dreadlocks."
The show is subtitled "a musical celebration," but more accurately could be labeled a musical confusion. There is talent to spare on stage at the Biltmore Theater, where "Reggae" opened last night, but the evening is clotted with characters and plot.
One of the many strands follows the return to Jamaica of a rockstar who has won fame in Babylon - which is America. Another story follows the journey of an innocent mountain youth in searh of Jah, or God. Still a third is about a farmer named Esau - one of the few characters who is not a hairy man - transporting sacks of ganja, or marijuana, to the city. The principal question posed by "Reggae" is who will get the ganja - the saintly Rastafarian preacher or the nasty motorcycle gang called "rude boys." The head rude boy (Obba Babatunde) tries devilishly hard to be mean, but ends up seeming more like Toshiro Mifune playing the Cowardly Lion.
"Reggae" has a large company of actors and musicians and an equally large cast of creators. Three people are credited with the book, seven with the music and lyrics and two (Gui Andrisano and Glenda Dickerson) with the direction. The evening appears as if it were put together by a committee - and there seem to be leftovers from earlier versions of the show. For example, there is one white actor on stage, who has featured billing but does as little as a member of the chorus. He looks like a lost tourist.
At times, "Reggae" is a cause for regret. Clear away the debris - the heroine's fatuous dialogue, some of the mysticism and about three of the subplots - and one can hear the beat of an authentic native culture and an indigenous popular music that could enliven Broadway. The show improves after the intermission with the introduction of Calvin Lockhart as the Rastafarian preacher. The actor underscores the character's imperiousness with humor, and his battle with Mr. Babatunde provokes some of the evening's most spirited music.
There are moments of spectacle and more stomping than in a Cossack chorus, but "Reggae" is at its most enjoyable when it is disarmingly simple. Ras Karbi, who wrote a fair share of the evening's best numbers and also drew the pictures of Haile Selassie that are used in the show, plays the mountain youth. Dressed in ballooning, homespun trousers, his dreadlocks wagging in time to the music, he sings his own song, the joyful "Promised Land," while dancing with the rubbery limberness of a Rastafarian Ray Bolger.
The other principals are also marked by their singing voices - Philip Michael Thomas and Sheryl Lee Ralph as the bland romantic leads, Sam Harkness as a local entertainer and Alvin McDuffie. Dextrously double-jointed, Mr. McDuffie narrates the play while bent over on his back like the symbolic spider he represents.
In and out and under tin-can scenery, the company - wearing occasionally flamboyant costumes by Raoul Pene DuBois and stringy wigs by Eric Turner - rushes to the final curtain as if in the mistaken notion that speed could disguise clutter. The finale is a peacemaking benefit concert, which is more an appendage than a climax, but leads us to the conclusion that "Reggae" might have been happier as a concert than as an overbooked flight of a musical.