Rolling out a new Christmas musical is a daunting feat — after all, the holiday season is when people return to perennial favorites, seeking comfort in familiarity and entertainment that appeals to multiple generations.
To that end, The First Noel — a Christmas-themed musical from the Classical Theatre of Harlem that opened at the Apollo Theater Tuesday (Dec. 13) night in New York City — faces an uphill battle: Delighting an audience that is naturally going to compare it to other Christmas plays/musicals/movies they’ve known and loved for years.
But The First Noel, which takes place in current-day Harlem but mostly plays out in flashbacks to 1985, manages to deftly combine the familiar and the novel to create an original Christmas musical that feels simultaneously relevant to 2016 (gentrification is an underlying theme) and universal (the task of pulling together a family divided at the holidays is the main mission of The First Noel).
Similarly, the music from Lelund Durond Thompson and Jason Michael Webb (writers of the book, music and lyrics) is mainly original, but it eases in new ears by incorporating a few Christmas classics and mining genres that are particularly warm and welcoming: Gospel, soul, and even a little New Orleans R&B.
The story focuses on adult Noel (Ashley Ware Jenkins) remembering her life as eight-year-old Noel (Nia Bonita Caesar), a young girl in Harlem who desperately wishes her family would celebrate Christmas despite her mother’s stringent anti-holiday policy in the house. What could seem like a generic Christmas story foundation (a child who radiates the spirit of Christmas facing off against a cold-hearted grownup) is actually quite poignant and complicated, as it turns out Noel’s mother, Deloris, is haunted by the loss of another daughter (also named Noel, i.e., the first Noel), a girl who passed away nine years earlier around Christmas while Noel was still in the womb.
The dream sequences from her mother are particularly innovative and affecting, depicting joyous seasonal celebrations that suddenly morph into her daughter’s funeral. They’re painful, inventively staged and haunting.
The rift that death created between Deloris (played by Soara-Joye Ross, who makes the pain of loss feel real with every line and note) and her mother Ethel (Tina Fabrique, the show’s MVP*** who makes us empathize with Ethel’s flaws and stuns the audience with the hearty depths of her voice) is one of the central conflicts of the play, along with the tension that loss creates between Deloris and her more even-keeled husband Henry (Ken Robinson, who gives the stage a firm, dramatic heft) and the trouble that starts between Deloris and her daughter.
Yes, it’s much more weightier than you might expect from a holiday musical, but the emotional complexities of the story help make the comic moments (provided by the instantly likable Brian D. Coats and the lovably gruff Lizan Mitchell) that much more satisfying.
The most ingenious comedic moments, however, come via segments that cleverly tease the similarities between TV advertisements and televangelists. Much of the music in The First Noel is religious, and the tone is certainly reverent overall, but the performance from Mykal Kilgore — of viral group Postmodern Jukebox and The Wiz Live! fame — as Benny Raindrop hysterically draws a parallel between the glibness of a preacher and the smooth talk of TV ad actors. Additionally, his affinity to musically stutter over syllables like a preacher gripped by the Holy Spirit is imposingly believable.
Like any good Christmas yarn, The First Noel comes to a satisfying conclusion — but unlike many a Christmas tale, it’s hardly a pandering happy ending (but at the same time, don’t fret — it’s not a depressing conclusion either). Instead, The First Noel is a distinct holiday story that’s as believably specific as it is emotionally universal. And from the gorgeous recurring original “Life Happens” to the spot-on commercial jingles to the Baptist ecstasy of closing number “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” the music is a refreshing, fulfilling alternate to the usual glut of standard fare or top 40 holiday pop.
***Whether singing gospel-pop or New Orleans R&B-inflected numbers like “Make What You Want” in The First Noel, Tina Fabrique is the show’s MVP. If you see the show and think, ‘Hmm, I’ve heard that voice before,’ you definitely have — she sang the iconic TV theme to Reading Rainbow back in the day. And yes, her acting is as flawless as her voice.
The Apollo Theater Presents The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s The First Noel is at The Apollo through Dec. 18, 2016. Get tickets here.