How many ways can a show go wrong? "Uncle Jed's Barbershop," a muddled musical memory play inspired by Margaree King Mitchell's children's book, offers an unfortunate illustration. Most of its good ideas are poorly executed, and its bad ideas are realized half-heartedly. Even the talented cast looks baffled and exhausted by show's end.
The script by Kenneth Grimes casts a wistful look back across generations of African-American advancement, weighing the costs and compromises against the triumphs. When a sleek urban professional, Sarah Jean Carter (LaVonda Elam), returns to her rural Arkansas hometown, she unleashes a spate of flashbacks to convey story points and life lessons that are vague, confused or repetitive by turns.
Portrayed as a child by Olivia Ford, young Sarah Jean is in thrall to her lovable, belly-laughing great-uncle Jed (Ken Prymus), a freelance haircutter with long-deferred hopes of opening his own shop. "Where do dreams come from?" is a typical song set-up for this cutesy pair. Then, as a rebellious young woman played by Daria Hardeman, Sarah Jean clashes with her elders and leaves for the big city, in one of the show's few compelling numbers, "I Don't Wanna Go."
In another nicely rendered sequence, "Make My Heart Stand Still," a wise widow, Twyla (Nora Cole), extracts a marriage proposal from the equivocal bachelor Jed.
These second-act highlights are too little, too late. And neither helps clarify the show's garbled main story, in which the adult Sarah Jean struggles to revive her uncle's aspirational spirit. Like the show, which is directed ploddingly by Susan Einhorn, the gospel-tinged score by David Wohl alternates deadly earnestness with saccharine sweetness. To put over its admirably empowering message, "Uncle Jed's Barbershop" needs more than a trim. An extreme makeover is more like it.
"Uncle Jed's Barbershop" runs today at 1 p.m., Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday at 5 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Theater at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street, Manhattan; (212) 352-3101.