By apropst on Dec 22, 2015 | In ATW Reviews
Christmas memories don’t get much more tuneful or joyously poignant than those found in the new musical The First Noel, currently playing in a Classical Theatre of Harlem production in the small blackbox space at the Apollo Theater.
Written by Lelund Durond Thompson and Jason Michael Webb, the show—which runs through New Years Eve—centers on memories that crop up for Noel (Ashley Ware Jenkins) as she returns to Harlem during the holidays to start the process of selling her late mother’s brownstone. Specifically, Noel recalls a year in the mid-1980s when all she wanted was a Walk-Man, but even as little Noel (Nia Bonita Caesar) dreams of finding this electronic present from Santa, her mother Dolores (Soara-Joy Ross) and father Henry (Nathaniel Stampley) deal with their own memories of their first daughter who died nearly a decade before, just before Christmas.
In her grief Dolores has become bitter and gone so far as to forbid seasonal celebrations in the home. Henry, after years of trying to help his wife move on from the loss on his own, looks for some assistance by inviting Ethel (Tina Fabrique), Dolores’ mother and an acclaimed singer to visit. Ethel and Dolores have been estranged since the little girl’s death, and rather than helping, Ethel’s buoyant nature and her desire to help her granddaughter find the spirit of Christmas only serve to widen the gap between the two women.
Moderating the underlying sadness of the tale are the exuberant songs that fill the show. Gospel, R&B and jazz songs both give voice to the characters’ pained emotions and help to take audiences back in time to the period. A pair of department store jingles are particularly effective in this regard as are Rachel Dozier-Ezell’s costumes, which showcase the best and worst of the era fashion-wise.
Beyond just being tuneful joys, the numbers sound terrific in the intimate space thanks to powerhouse vocals from both the principals and the ensemble (many of whom solo during the course of the show). Unsurprisingly, Fabrique, who has won awards for her portrayal of Ella Fitzgerald, belts out Ethel’s numbers a sure sense of style. Equally impressive are Ross and Stampley, who render the battling couple with sensitivity.
As their daughter, Caesar charms consistently, and Lizan Mitchell—playing a sage family friend, Miss Lou—brings wonderfully warm gravitas to the production, cunningly staged by Steve H. Broadnax III. The show unfolds seemingly all around theatergoers, which makes it nearly impossible to not get pulled into the tale and its redemptive and happy ending.
---- Andy Propst
The First Noel plays at the Apollo (253 West 125th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: cthnyc.org.
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