In a fitting finish for Theater Alliance’s “Black Nativity,” the last thing drummer Jonathan Livas did during Sunday’s opening was knock a cymbal clear off its stand. Top to bottom, Eric Ruffin’s production is a celebration in overdrive; the full-throttle music and ecstatic dancing almost overwhelm the 120-seat Anacostia Playhouse.
This is the “Black Nativity” that won the outstanding musical Helen Hayes Award last spring in the new “Helen” category (meaning it’s a primarily non-Equity cast), with slightly different personnel onstage and behind the scenes. What drives this is the choir, 14 big-voiced performers who harmonize with dynamism and precision.
“Yes! He will,” the choir croons crisply behind a soloist drawing out long notes in one of the second act’s characteristic gospel roof-raisers.
“Black Nativity” has taken many shapes since Langston Hughes created it more than 50 years ago; the late D.C. choreographer Mike Malone directed a version that was a Kennedy Center staple for years, and a 2013 movie reset the story to follow a troubled kid in Baltimore. The Theater Alliance show follows the traditional two-act form, first dramatizing Jesus’ birth and then spreading the word in a church-style meeting that encourages the audience to become joyful congregants. Very little is spoken. Spirituals and gospel tunes tell the tale.
For all the excitement, there is a stately quality to Princess Mhoon’s choreography in the first act. Whitney Hutcherson and Darin Turner do the most complex dancing as Mary and Joseph, and they move with elegance and explosiveness. Turner spins across the stage with particular urgency as the couple learns there is no room at the inn (or anywhere else), and in general Mhoon guides the large ensemble creatively around the small stage. (Seating is on three sides, and the best view seems to be from directly in front.)
In the movement-filled first act, the cast is dressed by costume designer Marci Rodgers in rich African robes. In the second act, dominated by big singing, the actors wear bright contemporary Sunday clothes. Resist the urge to clap and sing along if you can: It’s an immersive dip into church, with preaching that briefly speaks straight to the moment.
“Our lives matter,” the preacher affirms to a chorus of “Amen.”
Music director e’Marcus Harper-Short’s singers are a supple vocal unit — they’re a pleasure to hear, although Chris Lane’s sound design is sometimes pushed to a fuzzy overload whenever the volume maxes out. The three-piece band on a platform at the back is keyboardist Marvin Ford, bassist Yusuf Chisholm, and Livas on drums; like the singers, this trio can be soft and reverent or fast and thumping.
Concert versions of this production will be presented Wednesday at the Reston Community Center and Dec. 9 at THEARC Theatre in Southeast Washington. Lifted by voices, there’s no reason this “Black Nativity” shouldn’t be as vibrant beyond its current sanctuary.
Black Nativity by Langston Hughes. Directed by Eric Ruffin. Scenic design, Brian Gillick; lights, Dan Covey. With Jakiya Ayanna, Kelli Blackwell, Natasha Gallop, Marquis Gibson, Kinaya Grayson, Roy Patten Jr., Sherice Payne, Krislynn Perry, Elton Pittman, Ryan Swain, Taylor Walls and Greg Watkins. About 1 hour and 45 minutes. Through Jan. 3 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl. SE. $25-$35. 202-241-2539. www.theateralliance.com.