‘Ruby’ plays on the heart strings
The Father Ho Lung and Friends musical Ruby (also called Ruby Magdalene, to make an analogy with the Magdalene of the Bible) is making its third public appearance. The first two productions were decades ago and many years apart.
It has improved with age, or perhaps it’s because of the new set of talent – on stage and off – creating the show now playing at the National Arena. It plays on the heart strings and there was continual applause on Sunday.
Some new songs have been added and the accompaniment is played both by a live band and via recorded music. Like the rest of the creative team, the musicians are top of the line. Musical director is Jodi-Ann Johnson and sound tracks are by Jon Williams, Wynton Williams and Alex Blanken Martin.
Robin Baston, a staple in Ho Lung productions, is the technical director as well as the lighting and set designer; and another veteran of the group, Paula Shaw, is the movement director. Overseeing them all is a bright light from the Edna Manley College, Dorraine Reid.
These technical, behind the scenes people – aided by a host of others, including dozens of Brothers of the Poor and other volunteers who usher the large audiences into the Arena – assist greatly in the success of the show. They co-operate to give us a truly professional production.
That production camouflages the major weakness of story, its lack of focus. The story of Ruby, the inner-city girl who takes money from men to feed her family, takes third place to a musical sermon on the evils of politics and of crime in the ghetto. And somewhere in that mix of purposes must be placed the raising of funds for the Missionaries of the Poor, the religious order founded over 50 years ago.
Actually, in a pre-curtain address to the audience, Father Ho Lung said that the central theme of the show, and in life, is the battle between good and evil. We don’t see Ruby fighting that battle, unless one assumes that having relations with different men and receiving money from them is evil. After all, her choice was to do good — to support herself and family.
Where we do see the battle is often in dance, with half of the dancers dressed in black costumes, stereotypically representing evil, and the other half dressed in white, stereotypically representing good. Evil is also represented by politicians of Jamaica’s major political parties, which are named and whose orange and green colours are sported by many. One character, who represents both parties, wears a shirt that is half orange, half green.
Thirdly, evil is represented by Bad Bargain, a pimp and drug dealer, played on Sunday by Craig Walters. That character, like many others, is double cast. This review can’t comment on the cast not playing on Sunday, but every one of Sunday’s cast was either good or excellent.
Ruby was played by Twila Wheelan, an actress I had not seen on stage before; but she’s a natural and it’s to be hoped she will appear in other more challenging roles. Hers, like the others, are melodramatic, not calling for much depth.
This is not to denigrate soap operas. They represent the most popular form of dramatic entertainment, so the Ruby’s producers were wise to opt for that genre. A serious drama would probably have drawn a tenth of the audience.
The good guys are Stanley (played on Sunday by Stephen Johnson) and Father Benjamin (played on Sunday by Leighton Jones). Roberta, Ruby’s mother was played by Jodi-Ann Chambers. They too must be commended on fine acting.
There are about 20 songs and while the lyrics are often prosaic, the tunes are mostly “hum-able”, the best type for musicals. Are the Actor Boy Awards still being given for good theatre? If so, Ruby should garner quite a few, for both songs and aspects of the spectacle.
Incidentally, Sunday was Father Ho Lung’s 84th birthday. Together with the thousands of poor around the world that the Missionaries of the Poor have helped, the audience wished him Happy Birthday. All must hope that he has many more happy and helpful years ahead.