Tonia Hughes provided a startling reminder Thursday of the depth of the talent bench in Twin Cities theater. On short notice, the singing actor stepped in for Greta Oglesby, a star of Penumbra Theatre's "Black Nativity," who could not be there because of a family emergency.

Performing with righteous fervor and spirited sensuality, Hughes set the St. Paul theater alight on opening night, doing hair-raising solos, duets with Dennis Spears and combos with standout vocalists Deborah Finney and Yolande Bruce.

Hughes had a hand-clapping, foot-stomping showstopper at the end of the performance that brought the house down. But "Nativity" was a talent showcase for her castmates as well.

As the performers gathered with music director Sanford Moore and the mass choir of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, they were doing more than a retelling of poet and dramatist Langston Hughes' Christmas story.

They were living it, especially since the show marks a return to the holiday tradition for Penumbra, which last year was threatened with closure due to money problems.

Over the years, Penumbra has tweaked and reworked "Nativity" (which, by the way, is very different from the dreadful movie that was recently released). The theater has had a smooth jazz treatment done by Cooper Moore. It has done a full-on contemporary staging scripted by theater founder Lou Bellamy and T. Mychael Rambo in which Oglesby played a grieving grandmother who finds joy in family and in her faith.

Now, it has gone back to Hughes' original and has distilled the story to its narrative and musical essences. In this simple but elegant production on a stage transformed into a sanctuary by designer Lance Brockman, Bellamy stands at a lectern and narrates excerpts from Hughes' oratorio while alternating vocalists deliver hymns, spirituals and gospel songs such as "No Room at the Inn," "Go Tell It On the Mountain" and "My Way Is Cloudy."

Hughes and Spears are sensually playful on "Little Drummer Boy." Spears does a quiet, introspective "I Wonder as I Wander," giving emphasis to the words and doubts in this arrangement by Moore. Spears has vocal stylings that suggest soul legends from Sam Cooke to Marvin Gaye, Nat King Cole to Barry White. He puts it all in one song and while not seeming like a showoff.

The band, the choir and soloists Deborah Finney and PaviElle French all shine in a production full of holiday spirit.

Rohan Preston 612-673-4390