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Minneapolis by Ed Huyck

Black Nativity: Twenty Years of Holiday Cheer! and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Penumbra Theatre Black Nativity

Black Nativity
Greta Oglesby, T. Mychael Rambo and Ansa Akyea
This latest Christmas musical extravaganza is subtitled "Twenty Years of Holiday Cheer!" And that's more than an apt description. Always a Twin Cities seasonal favorite, Black Nativity manages to produce a joyful holiday production that never loses sight of the reason for the celebration. Through music and its often touching story, Black Nativity embraces family, tradition and faith.

Though told with minimal dialogue, there is a story binding together the dozens of traditional and modern holiday songs. Set at the first Christmas after the family patriarch has died, Black Nativity finds the entire clan gathering, from the still-heartbroken wife, through her children, grandchildren and one infant great-grandchild. The family's journey of Christmas hope and renewal is led by a white-clad spirit who gives them a needed nudge or helping hand when appropriate.

While the underlay may seem secondary - Black Nativity is primarily a celebration of music - it helps to make this more than just another Christmastime concert. Instead, it takes on a depth that transcends race, age and other barriers to create a universal sense of joy - no matter what the listener's own beliefs are.

The music and the performances are glorious, from the opening one-two punch of "I Love the Lord He Heard My Cry" and "Go Tell it on the Mountain" through songs that continue to celebrate the family's deep faith and love for one another. It's buoyed by a terrific ensemble cast, including T. Mychael Rambo (who worked with Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy to create the show), Jamecia Bennett, Aimee Bryant and a host of others (not to mention the two dancers - Alana Morris and Marciano Silva dos Santos - who provide additional context for the show).

Director Austene Van has a steady hand with all of the material, balancing the show's quick pace with moments of reflection and greater depth. New for this year is a quilt created for the show, which is unveiled in the middle of the piece. The quilt - created by a group of 20 volunteers - is a striking piece of work, showing the nativity scene in brilliant color. It's also another reminder of what lies beneath the entertainment in Black Nativity: an important story that needs to be kept in mind during the hustle and bustle of the "holiday" season.

Black Nativity runs through December 30 at Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul. For tickets and more information, call 651-224-3180 or visit www.penumbratheatre.org.

Photo: Ann Marsden 2006

Chanhassen Dinner Theatres Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Can you loathe and enjoy something at the same time? Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' latest does its best to answer this question.

Joseph
Brendan Bujold
The theater presents an absolutely brilliant production of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's rather awful Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat . It's a production that's mainly concerned with presenting a breezy and quick night of entertainment, which makes the worst offenses of the material not as egregious as it can be.

Am I being too harsh? Well, I've sat through a lot of Lloyd-Webber shows in my professional life, and usually have left with a throbbing headache and a deep ache in my soul regarding my chosen field.

It helps that Joseph is an early work, crafted while Lloyd-Webber was still a teenager. For once, his copying of musical motifs feels more like a young artist experimenting instead of just someone nicking the best of other composers. You do get the endlessly repeated musical moments, but there are also some engaging and charming (if rather derivative) songs that embrace different musical styles, such as a the country-western tinged "One More Angel in Heaven" or the Caribbean-inspired "Benjamin Calypso."

The less said about Tim Rice's lyrics the better. I'll just note that at one point he rhymes "pajamas" and "farmers." At which point, across the world, poets and English teachers were heard to weep.

So those are the demerits. What made the evening end up closer to the "winner" side of the ledger for me? It starts with a production design that embraces the Day-Glo aesthetic of the early 1970s. Both set designer Nayna Ramey and costumer Rich Hamson craft bright and pleasing creations, from the colorful "Joseph" letters that are used as settings throughout the show to the colorful robes worn by the brothers and the Egyptians, including Joseph's titular coat.

Now add in a well-sung and performed effort from the ensemble. While Brendan Bujold's Joseph and Jodi Carmeli's Narrator are largely charisma-free, several other actors make up for it in their performances. Most likely, Keith Rice's Elvis-inspired Pharaoh will stay in the memory the longest. With the King's trademark snarl and somewhat mealy-mouthed delivery intact, Rice channels Presley down to his soul. Other standouts include Mark King's lonely country twang and Jay Albright's lead on the French cafê-tinged "Those Canaan Days."

Michael Brindisi crafts a breezy production of the show that keeps the energy always moving forward. That's good, because while Joseph is short (it will probably take longer to eat dinner) it still feels a bit padded, and any flagging in the energy on stage can be deadly for a production.

If you love Cats and the rest of Lloyd-Webber's oeuvre, you'll certainly have a good time at Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. If not - well, you can certainly do worse than this engaging production.

Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres through March 15. For tickets and more information, call 952-934-1525; www.chanhassendt.com.

Photo: Act One, Too LTD © 2007, All Rights Reserved


- Ed Huyck



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