Story: The Black Rep looks at the holiday season from two different perspectives in this musical montage conceived and directed by producing director Ron Himes.
The first act is a religious paean to the birth of Jesus, blending a variety of African-tinged tunes arranged or composed by Diane White-Clayton that are set to lyrics taken from the Bible, written by George Friedrich Handel or Martin Luther or adapted from American, South African or Zambian folk songs.
The second act showcases individual members of the ensemble in festive renditions of tunes ranging from modern classics such as The Christmas Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas to more traditional yuletide tunes including The Twelve Days of Christmas, The First Noel and O Holy Night.
Highlights: The Black Rep welcomes audiences to its new home, the Emerson Performance Center on the campus of Harris-Stowe State University in midtown, with a reprise of its perennial holiday favorite, Black Nativity: A Holiday Celebration, that ushers in the troupe’s 37th season.
First mounted in 1988, his holiday concoction conceived and directed by Black Rep founder and producing director Ron Himes is a lively, energetic blend of the religious significance of Christmas in Act I with an upbeat songfest in the show’s second act that puts the spotlight on various members of the engaging ensemble in this 25th anniversary presentation.
Other Info: Jim Burwinkel’s spare set design, which he also lights, serves as quiet support for the colorful array of traditional African costumes designed by Marissa Perry that adorn the players in the entertaining Nativity story enacted in the first act. A pair of performers, Alicia Gbaho as Dancing Mary and Ryan Johnson as Dancing Joseph, demonstrate their considerable dexterity as they pirouette, somersault and effortlessly glide across the stage to Heather Beal’s lively choreography.
Pianist and musical director Kyle Kelley leads a tight combo that provides the soundtrack for this holiday excursion, including drummer Keith Fowler, percussionist James Belk, guitarist Dennis Brock and Sean Robinson on bass. Their playing provides a pleasing background for various singers to demonstrate their own musical abilities.
Jermaine Smith, e.g., offers a wonderfully clear and powerfully operatic interpretation of Ave Maria and The First Noel in the second act, when performers mostly are dressed in traditional evening wear. Roz White showcases her own distinctive, full-throated voice on the traditional carol, O Holy Night, then pairs with Herman Gordon for an amusing take on Baby It’s Cold Outside.
Leah Stewart belts out a powerful version of Joy to the World that belies her diminutive stature, while Evann De-Bose is coy and clever warbling the impish tune, Santa Baby. Matthew Galbreath entertains a cadre of ‘kids’ on stage with his animated recitation of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas and Truenessia Coombs gets the joint jumpin’ with a rocking version of Merry Christmas Baby.
There’s an amusing ensemble rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas and a poignantly beautiful rendering of a medley comprised of The Little Drummer Boy, Do You Hear What I Hear? and the traditional African tune Zu Wa Kuwanna performed by White, De-Bose and Mario Pascal Charles.
Highlights in the first act include the humorous, reggae-infused Late-Night Shepherds’ Blues, with a trio of male singers lamenting their lot while a bevy of the females frolic as an indifferent flock. There’s also a wonderfully rhythmic number titled Takwaba Uwabanga Yesu, a Zambian folk song arranged by White-Clayton, whose richly diverse score permeates the entire opening act.
Others in the talented cast include Jennifer Kelley, Ryan King, Samantha Lynnette Madison, Ashreale McDowell and Eboni Wilson.
Some technical problems inserted occasional glitches into a recent performance, which also was hampered by a couple of singers having trouble reaching their notes. On the whole, though, Black Nativity: A Holiday Celebration is a welcome yuletide treat and a fine welcome to audiences to The Black Rep’s new home.
Musical: Black Nativity: A Holiday Celebration
Company: The Black Rep
Venue: Emerson Performance Center, Harris-Stowe State University, 3101 Laclede
Dates: December 15, 19, 20, 21, 22
Tickets: $35-$35; contact 534-3810 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.