'Rejoice!' is a nativity story that really swings

Courtesy photoHoliday celebration: From left: Margarette Robinson

There are many ways to tell the nativity story, and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre’s “Rejoice!” puts the swing — as well as generous helpings of jazz, blues, rock and gospel — into this year’s version.

The company — which made Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity” its traditional holiday offering for a decade — is giving the world premiere of this short, sassy musical.

Written by Ron Stacker Thompson, with music and lyrics by Nolan Shaheed (additional lyrics by Thompson), and directed by Bay Area theater veteran Margo Hall, the 90-minute (with one intermission) production makes a cheerfully upbeat alternative.

“Rejoice!” follows the traditional Christmas nativity story, with a few departures. It begins with Joseph (an appealing Reggie D. White) preparing for his wedding day — until Mary, his bride-to-be (a demure Carrietha “Katie” Ball) reveals that she’s already expecting a child.

Joseph — egged on by his disdainful neighbors — is appalled, and it takes the sweet-voiced Angela (Margarette Robinson, singing a gospel-tinged “Wake Up!”) to get him back on track.

That’s just the first of the young couple’s trials; in the jazzy number that follows (“Ain’t Got No Room”), they’re unceremoniously turned away from the inn. The act ends with the birth of Jesus, complete with Greek chorus, African drumming and dancing, and a big, inspired anthem (“Praise His Name”).

Act 2 introduces the Three Wise Men (an exuberant Luther Michael Spratt, leading a more subdued Rudy Guerrero and Terry Stanley); a tap-dancing Star of Bethlehem (the lithe Traci Tolmaire); and King Herod (a commanding Jeff Jones), who demands fealty in thoroughly contemporary terms.

“Herod’s Scourge,” staged as a dance suite, yields to a group hug (“Open Arms”), a soulful ballad for Joseph and Mary, and an “Amen” for all concerned.

If the narrative’s a little perfunctory, and some of the singing a bit uneven, the music still gives the show plenty of lift.

Musical direction, by Jacqueline Hairston and Cesar Cancino, powers through the varied styles of Thompson’s songs; Cancino (on keyboards) leads a tight live trio featuring Sascha Jacobsen on bass and Bob Blankenship on drums. Tolmaire, who returns as Herod’s courtesan, also supplies choreography for the ensemble.

Under Hall’s direction, the cast gives it their all. “Rejoice!” may not be the definitive nativity story, but as an alternative to the tried and true holiday shows, it’s something to celebrate.

 

THEATER REVIEW

Rejoice!

Presented by Lorraine Hansberry Theatre

Where: 450 Post St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 4 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. only this Saturday; no performance Christmas Day, 2 and 7 p.m. Dec 31; closes Dec. 31
Tickets: $43 to $53
Contact: (415) 474-8800, www.lhtsf.org

artsentertainmentLorraine Hansberry TheatreSan Francisco

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