Fort Worth — In 2015, the Classic Theatre of Harlem included the world premiere of Lelund Durond Thompson and Jason Michael Webb’s The First Noel as part of their 15th anniversary season. For their holiday season, Jubilee Theatre has brought the musical to its stage under the direction of Jiles R. King II.
The First Noel is a fantasy-drama which reimagines familiar holiday music and feels too much like It’s a Wonderful Life The story peeks inside a Harlem family as they process the death of a child at Christmas.
Adult Noel (Rita Kotey) has traveled from her home in Atlanta to her homestead in Harlem to celebrate Christmas with her mother Deloris (Chimberley Carter Byrom). Deloris has been living in the brownstone alone following the death of her husband, Henry (Jamall Houston). Quite unexpectedly, Deloris dies, creating what Adult Noel sees as an opportunity. Finding herself the sole owner of the family home, Adult Noel decides to sell the house and use the proceeds to bolster her photography business in Atlanta. During a nostalgic last walk-through of the brownstone, she finds her childhood journal and several photos. This find triggers the spirits of Christmases past to come forward, led by Adult Noel’s dead sister, the First Noel (TaLayia). She implores Adult Noel to reconsider abandoning the place which had been her foundation.
Deloris was pregnant with Adult Noel at the time of the First Noel’s death. Adult Noel relives her childhood as the second daughter raised in a house where Christmas was forbidden. Her younger self (Brooklyn Roberson) struggled against the memory of a dead sister and a mother committed to endless mourning.
Sympathetic to her cause were Lou (Kenja Brown) and Skeeter (Zachary J. Willis). The conflict of the piece is between Deloris and her mother, Ethel (Rhonda Francis) who chose not to cancel her overseas concert when the first Noel died. Ethel missed the funeral, a decision Deloris could not forgive.
Without Deloris’ knowledge, Henry conspired with Ethel to have her visit during Christmas in defiance of Deloris’ orders that Ethel never set foot in the house again. The rest of the story questions whether Deloris and Ethel will reconcile, and whether Adult Noel will sell the house, or change her mind and stay in Harlem.
Filling in some of the spaces left in the script are the five vocalists/quintet: Ethel’s backup singers Contessah Irene and Brittany J., Kenneth (Zachary J. Willis), church soloist (Nychelle Winters) and Pastor Bennie Raindrop (Gary Edwards II). This quintet does not narrate. Similar to the quintet in Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” they provide some of the context for the troubled story.
There are problems with this script, not the least of which are the 26 songs in the first act. Twenty-six. For that to have any chance of working well (as in not leading to audience fatigue or annoyance), the pace has to move energetically. That did not happen here.
Some characters are nicely drawn but relationships are fuzzy. Is Lou a neighbor, an aunt, or both? Skeeter breezes in and out of Deloris’ house as if he is a member of the family who lives there, but he does not. His relationship to anyone else in the cast is unclear. Is he Lou’s son or just a random man who pops in and out of the family home?
But script aside, the biggest problem with this production is the direction. This is an able cast with glorious voices who too often seem uncertain about what they are supposed to be doing, much less, why. A Christmas tree is inside the house and outside the house at the same time. Walls are established and then characters start walking through them. There is a way to make that work but it is not employed here, so the curious crossings are disconcerting.
Performance bright spots in this production are by Zachary J. Willis (Skeeter), Kenja Brown, the children (Brooklyn and TaLayia), and the quintet. It is hard not to watch Willis because he appears surest of his character and the reasons for his acting choices. Kenja is natural and familiar, a character we know from the neighborhood. The young girls are delightful and perfectly cast. Rita Kotey has a good stage presence as does Rhonda Francis.
The quintet is more cohesive than the principals as a group, which is upside down because the strongest elements should be the principals. The harmonies in the score are fabulously lush and this quintet nails them. They understand the style and deliver consistently.
Whitney LaTrice Coulter’s costumes are wonderfully colorful and fun, supporting the storytelling and providing much needed clarity for the character profiles.
Musicians Geno Young (musical director) and Emmanuel Smith as keyboardists, with Joseph Love on bass and Josh Willis playing drums, are a tight unit. The drums are too loud on some numbers.
No announcement was given to the audience about the change in actor portrayals. The actor listed as portraying Henry is no longer appearing in the production. Jamall Houston is listed as portraying Skeeter, but he is actually assuming the role of Henry. Zachary Willis handles the role of Skeeter in addition to singing with the quintet (once one figures out the program issue, erases some of the visual confusion of seeing him moving back and forth between ensemble and principal.)
This First Noel cast insists that the audience experience joy and mirth, and leave the theatre smiling and clapping to the music. At this, they succeed.