I'm always amazed at the depth of musical and dancing talent with which director Ron Himes is able to people his musical productions. This beautiful Christmas package lives up to that traditional high standard. The cast of nine women and six men are under the impeccable musical direction of Kyle Kelly; they give us a rich and rewarding evening.
The first half is almost an oratorio on the birth of Jesus. The stage is constantly full of bright movement and dance as we see Mary and Joseph on their familiar journey. Costumes, by Marissa Perry, are gorgeously colorful and African and graceful. We have both a singing Mary-and-Joseph and a dancing Mary-and-Joseph (though both couples do a fair amount of dance). Choreography is by Heather Beale, and it's modern, sweeping and energetic—often quite athletic. (Some of the leaps and leg-flinging lifts done by Mary would, I think, certainly speed the delivery of a woman heavy with child.) The songs are a vivid patchwork of styles—from Handel's "Joy to the World" to vibrant African folk-songs to a wonderful Reggae version of the "Late-Night Sheperd's Blues" in which a shepherd bemoans that his woman done left him. Sheep graze among the shepherds; (they are women transformed by the simple addition of fluffy white knit caps and sweaters. They "baa" timidly when the great angel appears, and they're quite adorable! When the Angel and her heavenly host sing, their lovely voices intertwine as beautifully as in the "Flower Song" from Lakme.
Then one of the sheep does a charming rap number! And then we're off into a gloriously strong gospel version of "Go Tell it on the Mountain"!
Such variety, such beauty! There's the warm powerful honey of gospel; there's marching, martial strutting in a grandiose "King of Kings"; there's even some real opera. And there's that irrepressible, dazzlingly complex polyrhythmic clapping in a song called "Clap Praise".
And that's just the first half!
The second half of the evening is probably the best Christmas cabaret you'll ever see. There's an elegant "Oh, Holy Night", a celestial "Ave Maria", a deliciously comic and cuddly "Baby It's Cold Outside", and lots more. There's some wonderful blues shouting. A strikingly beautiful young man and woman dance a strikingly beautiful pas de deux. Finally the entire cast dons grand, sweeping crimson choir robes to sing a most joyous "Joy to the World"—during which we are amazed to see cart-wheels and hand-springs being done in those flowing robes.
"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord," says the Psalm, and the Black Rep surely knows how to do just that.
"Black Nativity: A Holiday Celebration" continues at Harris-Stowe's Edison Theatre through December 22. Harris-Stowe is easy to get to; it's at the intersection of Olive and Compton, just one block east of Grand and Lindell.
The only shortcoming of the whole evening is the inferior quality of the sound system in the theatre: it's a little harsh and tinny, and it makes some lyrics hard to follow. It's just not up to the splendid quality of all those fine voices.