by: Paulanne Simmons
In How the Grinch Stole Christmas! a mean creature tries to ruin Christmas for the people of Whoville by stealing everything related to the holiday. In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge calls Christmas “humbug” and refuses to celebrate with his own nephew. In The First Noel, a new musical, commissioned by The Classical Theatre of Harlem, Deloris also resists getting into the holiday spirit, but her reasons are much more sympathetic.
Deloris (Soara-Joye Ross) lost her daughter, the first Noel (Zariah Jani Singletary), at Christmastime, and even after the birth of the second Noel (Nia Bonita Caesar), she insists the entire family, including her husband, Henry (Nathaniel Stampley), and Noel, celebrate the holiday by visiting her daughter’s grave.
Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, The First Noel has a book, music and lyrics by Jason Michael Webb and Lelund Durond Thompson. The musical begins when the adult Noel (Ashley Ware Jenkins) returns to Harlem after her mother’s death. Her goal is to sell her mother’s apartment, but coming back to her old home brings up all her old memories. And so we return to one Christmas when Noel was nine and her father decided to end Deloris’s constant mourning by reuniting her with her mother.
Deloris’s mother, Ethel (Tina Fabrique), is a world-renowned singer, who spends much of her life traveling and missed Noel’s funeral. Deloris has never forgiven her mother nor seen her since that time. So when Ethel rings their doorbell one morning just before Christmas, Delores is surprised but not exactly delighted.
As Deloris and Ethel try to work out their difficulties, they are aided by caring members of the community, most specifically Ethel’s old friend Lou (Lizan Mitchell). Thus, much like How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and A Christmas Carol, The First Noel is a story of healing and welcoming the hopeful message of the holiday season. The two outstanding features of this production are Broadnax’s innovative staging and the marvelous voices of this cast.
The Apollo’s Soundstage is a small theater Broadnaz has made even more intimate by dividing it into two stages with the audience sitting between them on opposite sides of the house. One of the stages has two levels, the upstairs and downstairs of Deloris and Henry’s apartment. This not only triples the acting space; it immerses the audience in the action.
The music Webb and Thompson have provided for The First Noel includes reimagined traditional Christmas songs and a new score that ranges from jazz to gospel. The gospel numbers, executed by the very capable ensemble, are some of the most successful in the show. Both Pastor Greenwood (James Alexander) and Benny Raindrop (Mykal Kilgore) are convincing leaders of enthusiastic congregations.
There’s lots of clapping and rejoicing, but there’s also much more. There’s love and family and community. The First Noel gives audiences a fine way to celebrate Christmas. By the end of the show, you may very well want to jump onstage to take part in all that hugging and kissing.
The First Noel plays through Dec. 31 at The Apollo Theater Soundstage, 253 West 125th Street, 3rd Floor, 1-800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com.Group Sales: (212) 531-5355.