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 either 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 is a largely secular approach to the holidays, showcasing individual members of the ensemble in festive renditions of tunes ranging from Jingle Bells to Silver Bells to White Christmas and The Christmas Song and myriad other familiar tunes.
Highlights: While the evening is mostly evenly divided between the contemporary and the classic, the first act provides much of the production's engaging elements. Backed by the rousing and infectious musical accompaniment of musical director Kyle Kelley's tight and talented combo, the lively African dances choreographed by Alicia Gbaho fill the Grandel stage with a syncopation and vibrant energy that embodies the spiritual resonance of Christmas.
Other Info: A number of performers are given the chance to shine on different numbers and make the most of the opportunity afforded them by Himes, whose disciplined direction manages to keep the sprawling ensemble from becoming unwieldy. The show features several comic highlights, led by the amusing Late Night Shepherd's Blues, with Matthew Galbreath and Curtis Jefferson lamenting their lonely lot tending a motley flock of sheep who humorously cavort on stage as essayed by a sextet of players.
There's also a classy, rollicking version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in Act II, with Jefferson, Galbreath, Herman Gordon, Daniel Deshon Hodges and Germaine Depry Gbaho waxing a Motown version replete with stylized back-up moves by the quartet supporting lead singer Jefferson, including Gordon's booming bass as Santa.
Costume coordinators Jennifer (‘J.C.') Krajicek and Robert Van Dillen are kept busy adorning the performers in a resplendent array of clothing, from colorful and traditional African garb to the classy evening attire worn by singers in several second act numbers and even some kids' pajamas and festive attire adorning dancers on the Frosty the Snowman bit. Brian Purlee's set is a simple affair highlighted by a stylized Star of Bethlehem in an evening sky illuminated by Nathan Scheuer's complementary lighting.
Pianist Kelley is solidly supported by drummer Keith Fowler, percussionist James Belk, guitarist Craig Florez and Jeff Anderson on bass. Importantly, the band's volume never drowns out the individual singers, even if the Grandel acoustics sometimes swallow up lyrics.
Karen Hylton and Cynthia Woodson blend beautifully on an affecting Ave Maria, while Evann Jones has fun vamping up Santa Baby. Galbreath entertains the kids with an exuberant telling of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, while Leslie Johnson and Ralphelle Darden deliver the crowd-pleasing Baby, It's Cold Outside with humor and charm. Alexis White, Tyler White, Kristian Greer, Dominique Milan and Jones join in on an impish I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.
Other performers adding to the luster of the evening include Heather Beal, Annetta Flowers, Alicia Gbaho, Kenyada Harris, Crystal Holliway, Nakischa Joseph, Dana Sims, Shelia Ware and Cynthia Denise Woodson.
While the performances are entertaining and delightful, the second act nonetheless drags after a while, with too much emphasis on the ‘cute' aspects of some of the children's numbers. Also, it seems as if Himes tries to shoehorn in seemingly every holiday tune available, even if a number of them are sung in medley fashion and done quite well by the ensemble. Pruning 15 minutes from the second half of the second act would enhance the entire presentation.
Still, there's more than enough exuberant and exhilarating song and dance, as well as pensive reminders of what Christmas really is about, to please anyone looking for seasonal entertainment.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Group: The Black Rep
Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
Dates: Dec. 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18
Tickets: $35-$47; contact 534-3810, 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Photos courtesy of Stewart Goldstein