If many African-Americans identify fervently with the Nativity narrative, it is not just because of their strong Christian faith. The story of Mary and Joseph — social outcasts who just happen to be carrying the light and salvation of the world — resonates among people at the bottom of America's caste system who have contributed much to enlarging the country's wealth and heart.
That overlay of ideas and emotions is evident in Penumbra Theatre's spirited and celebratory "Black Nativity." Directed with simplicity by Lou Bellamy, who also narrates with a preacherly sonority, the oratorio reunites theater with its roots in ritual and religion. Hymns, carols and spirituals flow with passion from fulsome vocalist Jamecia Bennett and stylish baritone Dennis Spears.
They front a vocal bench with deep talent. Yolande Bruce not only conducts the precise and powerful Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church choir, but she also delivers in her sweet soprano. Singer Deborah Finney sounds like Aretha Franklin taken back to her gospel roots, while choir member Felicia Cooper injects keening passion on a small solo.
The songs in this 85-minute one-act are orchestrated in jazz, blues and happy-dance gospel styles by maestro Sanford Moore. Director Bellamy has brought back the choreography of Uri Sands, performed this year by Taylor Collier as Mary and Randall Riley as Joseph. They dance on only two numbers, but it's enough to provide a gorgeous embodiment of the worry, struggle and ultimate beauty of the birth of the "Sweet Little Jesus Boy."
7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri.; 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat.; 4 & 7:30 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 20. Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul. $15-$40. 651-224-3180, penumbratheatre.org.
'The Snow Queen'
At its best, the Children's Theatre Company of yore created on its little stage a funky assembly of characters who promised us a show. It might be ragged in performance, but the style and presentation had a definite magic.
That recollection crept up during Park Square's new production of "The Snow Queen," which opened Friday in St. Paul. Emily Gunyou Halaas leads a cast that performs, plays its own musical instruments and weaves through the fairy-tale world of Hans Christian Andersen.
She narrates the story of two friends who frolic through adolescence until the boy Kai (Silas Sellnow) is captured by the Snow Queen (Sara Ochs). Gerda (Caroline Amos) then embarks on a trek to find her pal and re-establish their claim on innocence.
Michael Peter Smith, a Chicago singer/songwriter, adapted this largely operatic venture. His simple music, driven principally by guitar, sounds like a throwback to 1970s folk. Director Doug Scholz-Carlson's production relies on a swirling spectacle defined by Miko S. Simmons' projections on a series of large moving panels, Michael Kittel's lights and the costume work of Rebecca Bernstein. Denise Prosek orchestrated Smith's three-chord tunes.
Halaas sings beautifully with a rich voice and presence. Ochs matches her, and other notable vocal performances come from Quinn Shadko and Elyse Edelman.
If there is virtuosity in this "Snow Queen," it comes from the sum of all these things. Picked apart, we could quibble with Smith's adaptation and the clumsy lyrics, the inconsistencies of the singers and some uninspired tunes. Yet Scholz-Carlson and his cast construct a spirit that invades us with Andersen's fantasy.
7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri.; 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 27. Park Square Theatre, 20 W. 7th Pl., St. Paul. $15-$60. 651-291-7005, parksquaretheatre.org.
'A Midwinter Night's Revel'
The December darkness always has provoked humanity's deepest fears and most fervent dreams. Will the sun return and life ever blossom again on this cold Earth?
It does, of course, but for those caught in peril, these long nights can test a soul's capacity for hope in the eternal cycle. The mortals who populate John Heimbuch's new play, "A Midwinter Night's Revel," are beset with such concerns.
As the title suggests, Heimbuch's work is a frosty homage to Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He draws from other motifs in the Bard's canon, nods to the pagan rituals that defined pre-Christian Britain and places his story in melancholy old England during World War I. The play, under Amy Rummenie's direction, opened Friday for Walking Shadow Theatre Company at Red Eye.
Heimbuch has chosen his totems well, although he overreaches with his ambition to touch every base. The first act tests our patience as Heimbuch, Rummenie and a solid cast erect the dramatic scaffolding.
Arthur, a wounded soldier (Zach Garcia), commiserates with Gwen, an old friend (Jessie Scarborough-Ghent) whose husband has gone missing at the front. Gwen's father (Peter Ooley) is an erstwhile sorcerer, and two youngsters (Eric Weiman and Shelby Rose Richardson) wrestle through their mutual attraction.
The fairy world of Titania (Heidi Fellner), Oberon (Daniel Ian Joeck) and Puck (Neal Beckman) intermingles with the mortals, and the fate of a young changeling (Jaxen Lindsey) hangs in the balance.
Heimbuch and Rummenie finally spark some movement in the second act. Jesse Cogwell's lights and Tim Cameron's soundscape are essential pieces of the magic. Rob Jensen's set uses Stonehenge as a guide. Kathy Kohl's costumes are, as usual, perfectly matched to character.
7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 30. Red Eye, 15 W. 14th St., Mpls. $15-$26. 1-800-838-3006, walkingshadowcompany.org.