Highest praise for ‘Black Nativity’

If “Black Nativity,” by far the most rousing Bay Area holiday entertainment, doesn’t get you in the spirit of the season, nothing will.

Onstage at San Francisco’s Marines Memorial Theatre this year — last year it was in the cavernous PG&E building auditorium — the annual Lorraine Hansberry Theatre gospel production is packed with energy and rhythm.

The religious songs, sung in two settings — at the first Christmas in Act 1 and in a present-day church in Act 2 — are soul-satisfying throughout. Even though Jesus is the subject of many of the numbers, listeners don’t have to be observant Christians to lap up the “joyful noise” the show serves from start to finish.

It’s the singing, from the kick-butt choir of vocalists who have been plying their trade in church since they were children, providing the show’s magic. As a group the performers sound terrific, and during their solos, you wonder why they each don’t have individual recording contracts.

They are led by one who does — Debra Henderson, a church elder whose most recent CD is “Higher Ground,” and whose professionalism and stamina base the show on solid ground.

But the supporting vocalists, including many who have appeared in previous, different versions of “Black Nativity,” are equally compelling as they take their moment in the spotlight: Cedrick Coward, Rubydell Lowe, Yolanda Cato Freeman, Clara McDaniel, Michael LeRoy Brown, Angel Burgess, April Wright-Hickerson, Elizabeth Princess Lane, Shanelle Silas, Rashaad Leggett, Nyeesha Washington, Darrius Johnson, Yvonne Cobbs-Bey, Woody Clark, Octavius Henry and Linda Drummer.

In the first act, robed dancers Challyce Bragdon and Michael Montgomery add lovely movement to the proceedings.

Kenneth Little at the keyboard leads the tight band, featuring James “Booyah” Richard on bass and Omar Maxwell on drums.

Bringing everything together are musical director Arvis Strickling-Jones, who arranged many of the tunes, and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre artistic director Stanley Williams, who has helmed previous editions of this holiday extravaganza.

This year’s topical theme includes a funny and touching tribute to Michael Jackson in a scene in which six shepherds evoke the iconic performer’s music and memory with grace and humor.

THEATER REVIEW

Black Nativity

Presented by Lorraine Hansberry Theatre

Where: Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St., San Francisco
When: 2 p.m. today, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $34-$40; all seats $20 at 2 p.m. Saturday performance
Contact: (415) 771-6900; www.lhtsf.org

lkatz@sfexaminer.com

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