nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 8, 2007
If you're not sure if you believe in miracles, check out Andre De Shields's feet. Watch them glide across the stage floor with a grace and ease that feels like it should be illegal, the precision of their moves belying his age (61, according to Wikipedia); catch the effervescent thrill when one of them goes off duty, resting in midair while the other does a mean one-legged mashed potato. De Shields, narrator and star of Classical Theatre of Harlem's holiday offering Black Nativity, is getting the showcase he deserves, center stage in this revival of the seminal gospel musical by Langston Hughes. I loved watching him.
Alas, the miraculous moments are fewer and farther between in Black Nativity than one might hope. Director (and, presumably, adaptor) Alfred Preisser makes some missteps in contemporizing this 1961 musical, re-setting it in the rough-hewn Times Square of the 1970s and filling it with pastiches of Motown r&b, gospel, and hip-hop. The story of the birth of Jesus gets lost in the shuffle, and the arc of this potentially powerful tale is sacrificed for a feel-good journey that's more about giving the audience a good time than making an authentically joyful noise.
The idea of the show is that, in a makeshift church in Times Square in 1973, a group of hustlers, hookers, drug addicts, and other assorted lost souls gather to tell the story of the nativity. (This is explained in the program note; it's not particularly clear based on what occurs on stage.) This concept turns out to be so tenuous and confusing that De Shields, as the pastor leading the "service," actually stops the show at one point to remind us of it, and then immediately informs us he's turning it off, bringing us back to the present day, i.e., 2007. He then reads "stories" from today's paper" that point up how far we are from the ideals represented in Christ's teachings, while the ensemble sings a restrained version of "Silent Night."
This segment lacks subtlety, to be sure, but it also feels very much inserted into a program that's otherwise playfully irreverent (some of the time) when it's not aggressively entertaining (most of the time). There are some 20 musical numbers performed in 90 minutes, most of them featuring pyrotechnic singing and dancing that unfortunately doesn't quite succeed in raising the roof. On the hoofing side of the ledger, Tracy Jack's unimaginative choreography is part of the problem and the company members' inability to execute it thrillingly (De Shields excepted) is the rest of it. Likewise, there are some fine voices here, but the effortless inspirational sound that we associate with gospel is mostly absent.
The songs include "Joy to the World" (three times), "Go Tell It On the Mountain," "King of Kings," "Most Done Travelin'," and "Sweet Little Jesus Boy." The last of these is performed by the Shangilia Youth Choir of Nairobi, Kenya.
I didn't have a bad time at Black Nativity, but I did feel that Preisser's efforts at making Hughes's work more accessible or whatever diminished its wisdom and charm; I also felt that the ensemble just wasn't quite up to providing the kind of high-energy, full-of-pizzazz song-and-dance show that CTH seems to want to make out of this material. In the end, what was left to enjoy was De Shields, who performed his aforementioned magic only briefly. And, oh yeah, there's a great four-piece band, under the baton of arranger/composer Kelvyn Bell; I think maybe the song I liked best was a cool funk version of "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen," performed by the musicians during the pre-show, while the audience was taking their seats and waiting for the festivities to begin.