Basically a family-friendly musical revue with a somewhat flexible outline by poet Langston Hughes, Black Nativity at the Black Rep has an alluring cast of 22 singers that excel, and is directed with a sure and steady hand by Producing Director Ron Himes.
The first act is a slyly, affecting retelling of the Nativity story, with an Afro-centric slant. It begins with 3 young girls of an African village singing, fidgety and off-key, the old spiritual “Mary Had A Baby” in a comedic, faux-Christmas-pageant-y style. Then thru a heady mixture of African, West Indies, traditional American Negro Spiritual, Blues and Contemporary Gospel styles, the story of the birth of Jesus is regaled to us once more, almost exclusively through music and dance.
The second act is decidedly more contemporary, filled to the brim with modern Christmas classics. Again we start with the same trio of young cuties, this time inviting their friends to a kind of Christmas slumber party. As they bounce ideas for Christmas carols off each other, each number springs to life, this time infused mostly with jazz, R&B, Motown and yes, even modern classical, ending the evening with an exuberant “Joy To The World”, led by Crystal L. Holliway.
Himes, like a DJ, clearly has the art of timing the musical flow down, deftly placing the numbers so that we are rarely experiencing the same genre of musical twice in a row, and (especially with such a large cast) his staging is never messy, and oftentimes quite amusing and/or affecting.
As far as the cast is concerned, if I had to point out all the solos that were done well, I would have to recite the entire song list. Some of my personal favorites were: Herman Gordon’s silky, smooth bass-baritone on “No Room At the Inn”, and again on “What Will You Bring the King?”, Evann Jones’ sweet take on “Sweet Little Jesus Boy”, the comic “Late Night Shepherd Blues”, sung with bluesy gusto by Matthew C. Galbreath, Curtis Jefferson (and their Sheep!). Also on that list are a Temptations-styled “Rudolph”, a unique soulful “Silver Bells”, “The Christmas Song”, led by Raphaelle P. Darden, Herman Gordon and Sheila D. Ware, and a jazzy, pristine “My Favorite Things”, sung by perennial Black Rep favorite Karen Hylton. My favorite “ensemble” song was the rollicking “Clap Praise”, where Nakischa Joseph and the cast really broke it down.
Scene Design by Brian Purlee was simple and functional, highlighted by a gorgeous African-printed Star of David, with evocations of stained glass. Lighting Design by Nathan Scheuer was smooth and on-point. The musical direction by Kyle Kelley was lively and lush, and the five-piece band, although a little over-powering on the softer numbers early in the first act, found the perfect balance and kept it there, making sure that both the singers and the band shared the love in each number. Choreography by Alicia Ghabo was assured, fluent and versatile, balancing classic ballet with Dunham Technique with Motown glitz, and she, Heather Beal and (I believe) Germaine DePry Gbaho handled the lion’s share of the more strenuous numbers.
My only faint criticism is that I saw the show on a Saturday matinee, and sometimes (only sometimes) it seemed like the cast was holding back a little, both in enthusiasm and in energy, conserving for the evening show. That aside, if you’re ready to be pulled into the Christmas spirit, you should definitely consider what has to be the most joyous show in town, at the Black Rep.
Black Nativity runs thru Dec. 18th at the Grandel Theater. You can grab tickets, for you and your family, at 314-534-3807.