All hail PaviElle French.
The understudy for the primary female soloist in “Black Nativity,” the Twin Cities soul singer stepped up to the plate on opening weekend after star Greta Oglesby fell ill. The standby made a strong case for the job.
French brought verve, power and a blast of sunshine to her very first solo, “My Way’s Cloudy,” and then she was off. She was confident, expressive and affecting on nine other numbers in the 80-minute show, including “Mary Had a Baby” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” On that last hymn, she started out a little overwrought and showy, but found the soul of the piece and made it a showstopper.
French is relatively new to the tight, accomplished stage ensemble that has made Penumbra Theatre’s music-filled production of the Langston Hughes oratorio the Twin Cities’ most soulful holiday tradition. Director Lou Bellamy again narrates this story of the birth of Jesus with preacher-like sonority, while soloist Dennis Spears, a “Nativity” mainstay, delivers with heart and elegance.
All of the singers, backed by the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church choir and a versatile band led by Sanford Moore, had standout moments. Choir director Yolande Bruce’s crystalline soprano was suffused with feeling on “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” And Deborah Finney delivered with a rocking, keening passion on “Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child.”
The singers weren’t the only ones to embody the aching struggle and ultimate triumph of the expectant parents wandering the desert. Choreographer Uri Sands has guided dancers in the principal roles of Mary and Joseph over the years, and this year, Taylor Collier and Randall Riley captured that journey in two potent numbers. As Mary and Joseph, Collier and Riley rocked and fell and ultimately soared, always supporting each other as they delivered their own beauty and grace to the world.
But it’s French who made the biggest impression. On the numbers where she joined Spears, Bruce and Finney to make a vocal quartet — “Oh, Jerusalem” and “What You Gonna Name That Pretty Little Baby?” — there was not just the usual friendly competition among the singers one-upping each other. There was also the sense that a new star is on the horizon, shining her own light.