by Alix Cohen
Following an initial run on the Apollo’s Soundstage last season, The First Noel moves to the theater’s mainstage with exuberance and heart.
It’s Christmas. Noel (a sympathetic Ashley Ware Jenkins with a fine voice- about 30) has returned to Harlem from Atlanta expecting to celebrate with her remaining parent Deloris (Soara-Joye Ross), when her mom unexpectedly dies. Noel’s father Henry (Ken Robinson-solid and resonant) has already passed. All she wants is to sign off on selling the house and get back down south. Christmas holds painful memories. Left alone in the brownstone, Noel finds a childhood journal and some photos. Ghosts play out the past.
After her young sister (Zariah Jani Singletary) died at Christmas, Noel’s mom didn’t allow any vestige of holiday celebration. In perpetual mourning, only a visit to the grave acknowledged time of year. This was rough on second daughter Noel (as a child: Nia Bonita Caesar, a little stiff). Even sympathetic neighbors Lou (Lizan Mitchell) and son? Skeeter (immensely appealing Brian D. Coats) unsuccessfully try to skirt boundaries.
Finally, out of frustration, Henry invites his upbeat mother-in-law, professional singer, Ethel (entirely credible Tina Fabrique) who does her best to rectify the situation. Doloris and Henry have strong words verging on a split. This being a Christmas story, it all comes out right at the end…at a church…with the choir.
There’s a mixed bag of rock and Broadway influenced songs which, though not original, serve the musical. (Jason Michael Webb) A boy group and a girl group are fun and underused. The best material, however, is gospel that peppers the piece. Most of this is R & B; skillfully harmonized, beautifully arranged, and emotionally infectious. A purple robed choir is helmed by two separate, equally outstanding Reverends, James Alexander and Mykal Kilgore, either of whom could step up to a pulpit tomorrow and rouse a congregation. There are points when members of our audience call out in vocal support-which adds to uplifting atmosphere.
This is a musical about family, forgiveness, and moving on, all of which fit firmly into a recipe for holiday spirit. Its message is direct, yet has faceted aspects, like a good tree ornament.
Director Steve H. Broadnax III does an excellent job utilizing the multi-leveled Set, makes every character appear natural, and moves his choir in and out with the skill of Hannibal and the elephants.
Daniel Robinson’s set works aesthetically well as both house and church.
Costumes by Rachel Dozier-Ezell are natural to characters except for the garish gold and purple dancer apparel in a single number.
Curtis Craig deserves a positive nod for superior Sound Design.
Photos by Jill Jones
The Apollo Theatre presents
The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s The First Noel
Book, Music & Lyrics Lelund Durond Thompson & Jason Michael Webb
Music Director- Andrew Lederman; Orchestrations- Jason Michael Webb
Choreographed by Brian Harlan Brooks
Apollo Theatre 253 West 125th Street
Though December 18, 206