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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

From the sacred to the profane, two reworked classics hit Minneapolis


Penumba's new Black Nativity soars with natal joy

It's a risk when a creative team takes a much-loved show, like Langston Hughes' Black Nativity, and reworks it to infuse it with new artistry. However, after a three-year hiatus, Penumbra Theatre's rewritten Black Nativity burns as bright as the star in the East.

Hughes' Black Nativity told the story of Jesus' birth in parallel to the story of the freeing of America's slaves. Playwright Walter Jones' new book for Nativity returns the story to the lands of the Bible and to the Israelites' longing for freedom from Caesar's rule. It begins with the angel's visit to Elizabeth and to Mary, and ends with Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus fleeing Bethlehem to escape King Herod's death order for newborns.

In composer and lyricist Roberta Carlson's foot-stomping fusion of gospel, soul, jazz and American musical, Penumbra's new Nativity lifts the rafters in the beautifully restored Pantages Theater and, on opening night, had audience members calling out and leaping to their feet.

Broadway star Jennifer Holliday, whose mezzo voice is a veritable saxophone of an instrument, sings as the Star Angel and sets an upbeat tone in her opening song, "Prepare the Way, Oh Come, Oh Come Emanuel." Whether she's singing tenderly as in "He Shall Be Called Holy," or whether she's down in her boots, revving up emotion as though she were giving witness and calling others in, Holliday stops the show.

She leads an ensemble drawn largely from the Twin Cities and spilling with talent. Standouts are Aimee Bryant as Sarah, and Andravy as the lead shepherd. Both bring down the house on numbers in which their voices riff and jazz and roll so that you don't want them to ever stop. Dennis Spears shines as a king and Zechariah, and Benny Cannon dips deep into his jazzy bass voice as a king. The talented T. Mychael Rambo seems somewhat underused in the role of Herod. Marion Willis dances and brings a fine tenor voice to a relatively young Joseph, and Laurine Price sings a sweetly innocent Mary.

Dancers leap and flash in Kevin Iega Jeff and Gary Abbot's lively choreography that draws its references from Africa. In skin-toned body suits, the dancers are lithe and sensuous, but when they put on Jessie Schulte's animal masks, a sense of play infuses their routines; outstanding among them is the preening rooster.

Against Jason Allyn-Schwerin's simple drop sets and projected skyscapes, costumer Kathleen Richert's earth-toned clothing fuses the cultures of the Middle East and Northern Africa. The simplicity of the ensemble's dress contrasts with the richness of Michael Stein's costumes for Herod and his gleaming white dress for the Star Angel.

Although it was over-amplified on opening night, and the first half is a bit long, this rebirth of Penumbra's Christmas show is an out-and-out zinger.

Black Nativity December 12 - 29. Tuesdays - Saturdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays & Sundays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Pantages Theatre, 710, Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. $26.50 - $39.50. Call 612-673-0404, or visit www.penumbratheatre.org.


Dolls' Nutcracker ?! (not so) Suite 2003 cuts the sugar and heaps on spice

With gobs of campy glee and terrific dance talent, Ballet of the Dolls' annual Nutcracker ?! (not so) Suite 2003 skewers Tchaikovski's sugary plum, The Nutcracker, and has a wonderful time doing it. But there's too much party preparation and too many rat scenes and, by the end of Suite, I felt stuffed to bursting.

Artistic director Myron Johnson wrote and choreographed Suitec which tells the tale of Marie and her loaded socialite mother, who live a high-end life in the New York of 1973. Momma dominates her plain daughter and stifles her development; she wants her ugly duckling to stay just as she is, a foil for her own slick good looks. But when Barbie doll-loving Marie receives a Ken doll for Christmas from her Uncle, the doll awakens new longings in her and sends her on a wild journey.

Johnson's choreography is one of the unquestionable stars of the show. It ranges from the tongue-in-cheek ineptness of hired waiters and waitresses preparing for Momma's big Christmas bash, to the brilliance of Michael De Leon's stiff Ken doll, dancing with Marie and her Drosselmeier-like Uncle. I found the precision, athleticism and sheer unexpectedness of the Ken doll sequences magnetic.

Not for a moment does De Leon forget that he's a doll. He moves like a coordinated robot, hands rigid as a Barbie's, a fixed smile on his still face, and yet he dances, lifts and spins with mechanized grace. He brings the same skills to the role of Uncle's Ken doll-like Nephew, who wears just two expressions, naive smile or startled surprise when sexual passes are launched at him. As Marie's fey Uncle, Johnson mimes his role, and his dancing is as fleet as quicksilver.

Maryann Smith-Johnson's Marie is a clunky adolescent, with bows in her hair and heavy glasses. Smith-Johnson embodies the girl's awkwardness and her ambivalence toward her ghastly mother and, chunk though she is, she's a wizard dancer. Alex Podulke plays elegant Momma in high camp, and Zhauna Franks high kicks her way through an engaging spoof of Barbie.

As a party guest and as the Rat Queen, Stephanie Fellner exudes malevolence and dances with fierce energy. Classical ballet training glimmers beneath the surface of all the high jinks on stage and is fully realized in Julia Tehven's lovely Snow Queen.

The thoroughly irreverent Suite tells its story through skilled dance, spoofily rhymed narration and recorded music of oldies, like "I Hear Music and There's No One There." It takes a knock at sex in all its shades, privilege, neuroticism and the sugaryness of the season, and has a great time doing it. But at two and half-hours long, it feels self-indulgent.

Nutcracker ?! (not so) Suite 2003 December 13 - January 31 at Hennepin Center for the Arts. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m. Sundays 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. $16.50 -$25. Naughty Nutcracker adults only, December 22 at 7 p.m. and December 31 at 10 p.m. $75. Illusion Theatre, 528, Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Call: 612-339-4944.


Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Twin Cities area


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Elizabeth Weir



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