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The First Noel

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 13, 2016

Soara-Joye Ross, Nia Bonita Caesar, Ken Robinson,
and Tina Fabrique
Photo by Jill Jones

Christmas theatre, like Christmas songs, Christmas movies, and Christmas TV shows, tends to follow a predictably tooth-rotting pattern about bringing people around to the "spirit of the season" in ways that don't always matter much in the grander scheme of life. This type of prepackaged saccharine is almost entirely absent from The First Noel, the jolting musical from Lelund Durond Thompson and Jason Michael Webb that just opened at the Apollo Theater in a production from the Classical Theatre of Harlem. If it ultimately arrives at the same destination as so many of the holiday's more visible artistic presentations, enough chances are taken along the way that the resulting uplift is earned and in no way assured.

This is because, in this case, the emotionally afflicted have a better reason than "humbug" for being bereft of yuletide cheer. In the late 1970s, Henry and Deloris Stevens saw their 9-year-old daughter die right before Christmas, and Deloris's grandmother refuse to come to the funeral or even pay her respects in person. As a result, Deloris banned both Christmas and Mom from the house, which, in 1985, is slowly eroding the innate well-being of their second daughter, who wants nothing more than to celebrate it with all her family.

But Deloris (Soara-Joye Ross) is adamant to the point of fire-breathing in her views, and insists that the only "religious service" in which they will participate involves bringing flowers to the daughter's grave every year. It's clear Henry (Ken Robinson) disagrees with this approach, but it's not like he isn't in pain, too, so he goes along with it, even seeing its impact on their remaining daughter (Nia Bonita Caesar). And what is one to think when, on a seemingly random day in December, Deloris's mother, Ethel (Tina Fabrique), a glamorous, world-famous singer, shows up at the door hoping to finally make amends after nearly a decade away?

Note that I didn't say Thompson and Webb avoided clich├ęs altogether; you can get a good idea of where this is going, and the symbolism, like the plot itself, is more than a little heavy-handed. It is, let's face it, pretty improbable that both the tragically lost girl and the one who's still alive would both be named Noel (the title thus referring to the earlier, deceased one). Did Deloris and Henry have two children at the same time with the same name? Or did they have the second one specifically to replace the first one, and didn't even bother trying to hide their motives by coming up with a different name? The script, perhaps wisely, does not examine this issue too closely.

But if you can get past this, and the rather hokey framing device of the adult Noel (Ashley Ware Jenkins) returning to Harlem to sell the brownstone in which all this happened while she was growing up (it was originally bought by her ultra-rich grandmother, to be clear), The First Noel is a powerful story that's anything but hackneyed. The writers don't shy from addressing genuine anguish that comes from a believable place, and each character's actions are justified, even understandable, within the boundaries of the premise. When Deloris rages against her daughter, you never doubt that it's because she's still choked with despair and grief, and Deloris and her mother have both developed excellent reasons not to trust the other. (It's a strength of the script that they both have quite different interpretations of the events that split them up.)

By the last third of the show or so (it runs 90 minutes with no intermission), when Deloris and Henry are both fed up (nearly to the point of leaving) with what the other is teaching Noel, you are locked in a recognizable, maddening universe with these people, not some low-stakes green-and-red fantasy land. The difference this makes is incalculable, because, when you can't predict how they will manage to untangle the mess they're in, you care a lot more than if the potential solution, like its setup, is more contrived. And when the avenue toward a resolution does begin to appear, it does so in such a gradual, unassuming way that you can't fully recognize it until it's already upon you and weaving the kind of magic you've been conditioned to think impossible.

So compelling is all this drama that the score itself becomes, if not superfluous, then at least secondary. And true, there are a couple of numbers (Ethel's overly peppy entrance song, a department store medley) that sound like they've flown in from a Hallmark Channel winter spectacle. But elsewhere you'll find traditional carols and popular songs (ranging from the title tune and "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" to "The 12 Days of Christmas" and "Deck the Halls"), many of which have been given handsome modern twists, with gospel, spiritual, and even more familiar musical-theatre compositions. A lengthy early funeral flashback moves from unquenchable sorrow to God-praising joy in a split-second, for example; there's a delightful musical scene in which Noel frantically flips between writing a letter to Santa and a more Mom-approved document; and there's a glorious little production number when Ethel decides to transform the sad living room into a bastion of Christmas cheer.

More effective and affecting, though, are the soul-searching songs that plumb into the family members' hearts as they struggle to come back to life, individually and together. Few of these, including the finest of the lot, the climactic "The Mom in the Picture" (in which Noel finally has her say about things), are musically or lyrically distinguished; they're professional and functional, buoyed at as much by Webb's excellent orchestrations and Andrew Lederman's keen musical direction as by their artistic content. But they're so correct for the moment and so honest that you're swept away in them nonetheless, which is exactly the way a show like this ought to work.

The lead cast members are all superb, though Ross so flawlessly mates her astounding voice with her uncompromisingly brutal characterization of Deloris that you may find yourself too engrossed to give Robinson (who invests Henry with just the right blend of hope and confusion) and Fabrique (in full force-of-nature mode, and maximum star radiance, as Ethel) their full due. Caesar and Jenkins appealingly outline Noel, and Mykal Kilgore explodes with magnetism as the inspirational TV pastor who becomes critical to the final scenes. And Brian D. Coats and Lizan Mitchell invest two members of the Stevens's extended family with plenty of lively personality, even if Thompson and Webb don't seem quite sure what to do with their characters.

The raw staging (by Steve H. Broadnax III), on an expansively gritty set by Daniel Robinson (accentuated with costumes by Rachel Dozier-Ezell and lighting by Alan C. Edwards), is tightly in tune with the material; most of the zippy, plastic-smile choreography (by Brian Harlan Brooks) is less so. There are times that those behind the scenes appear to doubt themselves and give in to the conventions of the genre, but the show is at its considerable best when it ignores them outright and upends them instead. Thompson and Webb may take an unusual route, but you won't feel cheated by their lack of mistletoe and eggnog. The underlying message, that the season is about redemption that can be found only in one place and that you have to go looking for it (and working toward it) if you want to claim it for your own, is all that The First Noel—or any Christmas story—needs to qualify as the real deal.

The First Noel
Through December 18
The Classical Theatre of Harlem at The Apollo Theater, 253 West 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster