REVIEW: The Nativity (Congo Square)

  
  

Beautiful to Behold

  
  

Congo Square - The Black Nativity - Celebrating the Birth

   
Congo Square Theatre presents
  
   
The Nativity
  
Written by McKinley Johnson
Inspired by
Langston Hughes
Directed by
Aaron Todd Douglas
at Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $30-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I have been going to the theater in Chicago for over 40 years and Black-themed productions have a special place in my heart since I first witnessed Purlie Victorious! at what was the Monroe Theater in 1969. The power of seeing and hearing the old traditions, colloquialisms, and gospel or blues tinged singing remains with me. This year, I wasn’t feeling the so-called Christmas Spirit in full. The commercials started before I could plow through my Halloween stash of candy and make the turkey sandwiches from Thanksgiving. Thank goodness I got my hallelujah infusion from Congo Square’s production of The Nativity.

Kathleen Purcell Turner and Pierre Clark as Mary and JosephThis musical and dance extravaganza is written by McKinley Johnson and inspired by one of my favorite writers: Langston Hughes. The plot is the traditional Nativity story of the Visitation from the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary and the adventures that ensued in the birthing of the man known as Jesus.

The Black Nativity, which inspired this work, is one of the sacred plays written by Langston Hughes in the late 40’s and early 50’s as the Harlem Renaissance gave way to a stronger Civil Rights Movement in America. The Black theater had always been a strong presence due to segregation and discrimination. Hughes was always unabashed in his support and pride for Black traditions in music, poetry, and other art forms. Director Aaron Todd Douglas, Musical Director Jaret Williams and Choreographer Kevin Iega Jeff have built a beautiful monument on the foundations laid by Hughes and McKinley.

The combination of dance and spoken word make for a powerful and emotional tribute. Dancers Kathleen Purcell Turner and Pierre Clark portray the characters of Mary and Joseph. They never speak but project power, emotion and pain with dance. Ms. Turner is a wonder to watch as she portrays the birth pains, terror and exhaustion of travel on the run. If I had not been sitting so close I would wonder if she was held up or manipulated by invisible cords. Her beautiful and expressive face shows innocence, giddy youthful love, fear, and finally a maternal glow. She and Mr. Clark play perfectly off of each other as a couple in love.

Pierre Clark is an amazing high school senior who has perfected the role of Joseph. He emotes the youthful lust and royal bearing befitting a descendant of King Solomon. His acting is wonderful and the protection and joy of fatherhood is beautifully played through his dance moves. The choreography is reminiscent of Capoeira dancing – a blend of dance and martial arts that was forbidden during the slave trade in Colonial Brazil. It is a stunning and innovative take on choreography in a sacred work.

The cast of singing actors in The Nativity is from the ranks of Chicago’s finest actors. John Steven Crowley commands the stage as the Angel Gabriel and the narrator of the story. Alexis Rogers and Jeniel Smith shine as Athaliah and Johashobah. They are best friends at the washing creek and wives the fearsome King Herod. They have some funny and contemporary lines that ring true in modern society as well as ancient times.

Pierre Clark and Kathleen Purcell Turner as Joseph and MaryBlack Ensemble Theater regular, Kelvin Roston Jr., joins Ms. Rogers and Ms. Smith. Mr. Roston brings his handsome and convivial charm to the roles of Tax Collector, Inn Keeper, and Centurion. It is always a pleasure to see him perform.

Dwelvan David is a standout as King Herod. Mr. David’s striking features and imposing projection give him a perfect balance of fierce warrior, cunning politician, and comic foil.

The singing in this play is exceptional and pure gospel. The selections by Jaret Williams are soul-rousing and seemingly tailored to the singing talents of the cast. The moment the piano played I felt that I was ‘back in the day’. A special mention of Melody Betts and Dawn Bless is warranted for their roles of Mother of Mary and Elizabeth. They each have wonderful solos and shine in the roles of mother, confidant, and protectors of the Virgin Mary. Two other highlights are the song and dance combination of ‘Her Way’s Cloudy’ and the appearance of the Three Kings. The costumes are perfection in the choice of fabric and tailoring. (I was really close to the stage). The song ‘You Ought To Try The Lord’ is rocking, as is the ‘get happy in church’ dance by Jon Pierce.

I recommend The Black Nativity as a holiday tradition for everyone no matter your race or religious tradition. It’s perfect for the whole family and as an introduction to musical theater for younger children. Kudos to all of the parents in the audience as this was one of the best intergenerational audiences I have had the pleasure to be in. Happiest of Holidays to Everyone!

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Ensemble

The Congo Square Theatre production of The Nativity runs through December 31st at the Goodman Theatre,170 N. Dearborn in vibrant downtown Chicago. Please call 312-443-3800 for ticket information.

      
      

Continue reading

REVIEW: Ragtime (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

Drury Lane scores big with epic musical “Ragtime”

RAGTIME-_The_cast

 
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
 
Ragtime
 
Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow
by
Terrance McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics)
directed/choreographed by
Rachel Rockwell
at
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook (map)
through May 23 (more info)

By Katy Walsh

‘What can happen in a year?’ Father’s question is an expectation that life is simple and predictable.

BF1C0838 The reality is birth, death, emancipation, persecution, obsession, syncopation. In 1906, the regularity in life takes unexpected turns as Drury Lane Oakbrook presents Ragtime The Musical. The show focuses on the lives of three groups: WASPs, blacks, and immigrants. In the New York suburbs, a wealthy family breaks the monotony with wild excursions and celebrity stalking. In Harlem, a successful black piano player decides to search for his lost love. Just off the boat, an Jewish immigrant artist and his daughter arrive with nothing but optimistic anticipation. Three distinctly different rhythms unexpectedly intersect to create a new tune. Ragtime celebrates a year in American history by paralleling the adaption of ragtime music with socio-economic changes of the time period. The results are a stunning history lesson intertwined with melodies of hope and change.

Under the skillful direction and choreography of Rachel Rockwell, the tempo never misses a beat. Rockwell strikes all the right notes with this multi-talented cast. Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse) is the powerhouse of emotional range in song and act. His tune changes throughout the show – regret, love, vengeance. Darrington connects the audience with his story based on heart wrenching hope. His “The Wheels of a Dream” duet with Valisia LeKae (Sarah) is flawless. LeKae is a perfect match-up and their onstage chemistry is the epic-love-story-kind. Cory Goodrich (Mother) is marvelous in an understated and nonchalant way. Goodrich’s character changes her family’s life dramatically with simple choices. Her transformation is most baffling to Father played by Larry Adams. In a pivotal song, Adams is perplexed as he sings, ‘I thought I knew what love was but these lovers play different music.’

With inspirational paternal love, Mark David Kaplan (Tateh) chases a train for a teary-eyed audience impact. Alongside the principals, smaller and famous roles engage curiosity. Emma Goldman (Catherine Lord) influences as a social reformer. Evelyn Nesbit (Summer Naomi Smart) is the Brittany Spears of the time period…whee! Harry Houdini (Stef Tovar) mystifies as a successful immigrant. Booker T. Washington (James Earl Jones II) commands integration and respect.

BF1C1085 Larry_and_Cory
BF1C0803 BF1C0945 Mark_Kaplan-Jennifer_Baker

Surprisingly, this blockbuster musical starts with a stark stage. The introduction of characters is a popped up portrait of perfection. Literally, group entrances are elevated from below stage. As the three groups multiply across the stage, the unique flair of costume distinction, designed by Santo Loquasto, is a spectacular visual. Costumes, projections, lighting, moments of tasty eye candy decorate this show. From silhouettes marching to swimmers bathing, the imagery dances to the ragtime.

And there was distant music, simple and somehow sublime. Giving the nation a new syncopation.  The people called it Ragtime!’

Paralleling life’s happenstance, my performance had some twists not necessarily planned. There seemed to be an issue with lighting up the solo singers in the first few scenes. A momentary blip broke the backdrop illusion with a ‘Microsoft word computer screen’ projection. Initially, the audio seemed hollow. I was uncertain if it was a microphone or acoustic issue. It either cleared up or my engrossment made it a moot point. All in all, this production was amazing. It left me reinforced that a gesture of kindness changes life’s courses and bewildered about men’s obsessions with cars.

 
Rating: ★★★★
 

BF1C0810

 

Continue reading