Audiences could be forgiven for worrying that True Colors Theatre Company's Black Nativity might evoke a high school's annual birth of Jesus holiday pageant. The perennial musical's first half takes place "When Christ was born" and hits all the requisite beats of the first Christmas: angels, shepherds, Magi, etc. Plus, True Colors follows a similar approach as its recent holiday productions of The Wiz by casting primarily high school and college students as well as some recent graduates.
Fortunately, Langston Hughes' Black Nativity resembles a revue more than a plot-and-character-driven musical. The material turns out to be an ideal vehicle for the young ensemble, since director/choreographer Patdro Harris and music director JMichael can cast to the performers' individual strengths, while acting never really becomes an issue.
Featuring 24 exuberant players, Black Nativity's first half offers a vibrant swirl of African-American gospel songs and African costumes, suggesting the Nativity story by way of Broadway's The Lion King. I saw Black Nativity's final preview performance on Dec. 20, and found that the show's second half, set in the present day, seemed to engage the audience and performers more.
Act Two depicts a Christmas service at the Life Church, where the well-off parishioners first ignore, then accept a homeless man (Sam Collier) in a contemporary metaphor for the "No room at the inn" lesson. The cast seemed to particularly relish the contemporary story, possibly because it's closer to their own experience than the first half's parable quality. DeMille Cole-Heard, Reginald Degratfenraidt and Desmond Ellington double as the three wise men and three of the church's deacons, and bring enormous enthusiasm to the impassioned, old-school testifying songs.
Perhaps because numerous church groups were in attendance, the audience response to Black Nativity's contemporary half was electric, cheering and calling out "Amen!" where appropriate. It didn't hurt that the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts even has the look of a modern-day mega-church. Occasionally, Black Nativity seems to offer sheer quantity as a substitute for quality. Nevertheless, the show features so many highlights – such as the a cappella verse of "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful" – that it becomes a thrilling seasonal spectacle in its own right. These young people don't need to be graded on a curve.