Penumbra Theatre's 30th "Black Nativity" features the return of a solid pro and a new narrator.
Lead female vocalist Greta Oglesby, sidelined periodically last year by voice concerns (and spelled splendidly by PaviElle French), put an exclamation point on her return to the production Thursday in St. Paul. In hale health, Oglesby delivered with a stream of resplendent soul, singing with deep emotion and beauty on solos such as "My Way's Cloudy," "Poor Little Jesus Boy" and "O, Come All Ye Faithful."
Dennis Spears, a spirited showman with infectious joy, also brought deep feeling and grace, from his first solo, "I Wonder As I Wander," through the foot-stomping celebration "Christ Is Born."
In past years, Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy has both directed and narrated poet Langston Hughes' oratorio about the birth of Jesus, a story with particular resonance for African-Americans, given their history of segregation and marginalization. Mary and Joseph — embodied with beauty and feeling by dancers Taylor Collier and Randall Riley as they executed Uri Sands' expressive choreography — struggle to find a suitable place to have their baby, the future light of the world.
Bellamy has once again staged "Black Nativity" elegantly and cleanly (the simple church set is by Lance Brockman), but handed off his onstage duties to longtime Penumbra company member Jennifer Whitlock. A contralto who sang with Sounds of Blackness, Whitlock brings a rich, rolling sonority to the narrator role, getting caught up in the beauty of the language and the swelling liturgy of the piece. Stately and poised as she stood in front of a music stand Thursday, you could tell she was hearing Bellamy's voice in her head.
That sense of history — and friendly competition, no doubt — was also present among the lead vocalists. Yolande Bruce, who conducted the Kingdom Life Church Choir, and keening soprano Deborah Finney delivered with relish on "Oh, Jerusalem," a number with Oglesby and Spears that seems almost like a sing-off.
Hughes' script for "Black Nativity" has always been pretty thin, orbiting a few ideas about how outcasts can be the salvation of the world. But the show has never relied on just the narrative to carry the story. Credit the music, conducted with verve by impeccable bandleader Sanford Moore, and performed by his tight band, the Kingdom Life choir and the soloists. Together, they make "Black Nativity" into such a compelling 90-minute show that it's easy to rise with them at the end, clapping "Hallelujah."
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