Director-choreographer Mike Malone's crisp, colorful staging of "Black Nativity," which ended a run of five consecutive holiday engagements at the Kennedy Center last year, set a fairly high local standard for Langston Hughes's gospel musical. If the respectable new production of "Black Nativity" that opened last week at the Lincoln Theatre isn't as polished as Malone's--and it isn't--there are two good reasons.
The first is that this is the Lincoln's maiden theatrical producing credit under the new regime led by executive director Jocelyn E. Russell.
The second is that director Ozzie Jones takes a less secular approach to the material. In Malone's hands, "Black Nativity's" free-form second act had a show biz angle, tracing the gospel message through such popular 20th-century performers as Mahalia Jackson and the Five Blind Boys (with the performers doing credible impersonations of the gospel greats). In Jones's production, the second act is more or less like church.
In fact, the whole show at the Lincoln has an atmosphere of devotion. Things start with a prayer (things also started almost half an hour late the Saturday afternoon I attended), and the second act is set in a Washington church, where a preacher reminds his eager flock that "Jesus is the reason for the season."
"Black Nativity" doesn't crack under the strain of being glitzy one year and restrained the next because it is an extremely loosely structured show. The book seems almost nonexistent: The little bit of spoken text in Jones's production is almost totally different from the little bit in Malone's. What's left is a string of songs that retell the story of Jesus's birth in the first act and celebrate gospel music in Act 2.
This means the show is basically a vehicle for musical performers and a few dancers. The main dancers here are a pair of angels who nudge the action along throughout. Carla Vick-Holly and Ron Woods are sometimes dazzlingly acrobatic as they execute Rennie Harris's street-inflected choreography; their up-to-the-minute style and a few early hip-hop rhythms from the band onstage tease you into thinking that an aggressive, funky show may be on tap.
But that kind of kinetic energy is intermittent. This is mostly a musical performance, as such seasonal songs as "Joy to the World," "What You Gonna Name Your Baby" and "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful" sort of shape themselves into a narrative.
There are no knockout vocal performances, but Jones and vocal arranger James Foster don't seem to be going for blast-you-out-of-your-seat gospel singing. D. Sabela Grimes (as Joseph), Stephawn P. Stephens (as the preacher), Delores S. Pope (as Mary's mother) and most of the rest of the cast have strong, sure voices that they use with more finesse than pure power. That feeds rather nicely into the general effect of humble devotion.
Jones literally gets the crowd into the show in Act 2 as actors coax a few patrons onstage for a dance, but this show is generally more stately and reflective than joyfully infectious.
Although it's a fairly static production, the designers give it a handsome sheen: Set designer Tony Cisek's simple bare tree seems to spread its branches benevolently, while lighting designer Dan Covey and costume designer Alex Rapley work in warm tones.
It's all pleasant enough to satisfy "Black Nativity" fans who haven't grown attached to Malone's more flamboyant version, yet this traditionally celebratory holiday show moves tentatively and sounds a little cautious. But then, first productions often do.
Black Nativity, by Langston Hughes. Directed by Ozzie Jones. With Peggy Carmichael, Joyce E. Ellison, Angel de Jesus, LaSharon Johnson, Janice Menifee, Shaun L. Johnson, Princess Kamura Mhoon, Morris L. Pope and Keith A. Williams. Through Dec. 30 at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. Call 202-432-SEAT.