Monday, December 23, 2013
Theater review: Jubilation The Christmas Musical fills our holiday spirits with laughter, song and dance
It's a piece of holiday magic you don't want to miss.
Told in perhaps the dream of a young boy whose mother can’t pay rent and is being harassed by her landlord, Mr. Perry, the show quickly shifts to a Harlem-style rent party that subtly tells the story of Jubilee Theatre in the leaner days, when Rudy Eastman was the artistic director and the shows were more on the street than in the theater at times. Jubilation The Christmas Musical tells this story while presenting an outstanding evening of Christmas entertainment with some of the best singing and jazziest Christmas music anywhere.
Jubilation is a collaboration with current Artistic Director Tre Garrett, Musical Director Geno Young, and a bit of creativity by Jubilee’s Artist in Residence Jordan Cooper. In this original story, the music is lively, the dance is smooth and the humor is over-flowing. Phyllis Cicero directed the cast of talented actors and super singers, and her cast was tight and their mutual joy was palpable. Geno Young’s musical arrangements put new meaning and a lot of excitement into the mostly familiar Christmas songs, with a few I hadn’t heard before. They flowed like smooth Motown, jazzy with a sparkle, and a bit of down-home spirituality like a slide trombone. The harmony arrangements were awesome.
Ellen Doyle Mizener designed a set with stairways, steps and platforms that used the full width, depth and height of Jubilee’s Sundance Square stage. Dressed in black and red with sparkly hanging silver ribbons that waved in the wind, creating the effect of a water pool on the center platform, the set was decorated for Christmas and made for song and dance. Lighting by Nikki Deshea Smith gave us a bright space with projected decorations and effects.
On this stage the actors sang and danced up and down stairways, across the floors and up and into the audience so the entire house was involved in the celebration. And the dancing was amazing, given the small space and many levels. Choreographers Elise Lavallee and Brittany Jenkins created continual movement for the cast, created dances in a variety of styles to go with the songs being sung, and every movement was a feast for the eyes.
Costumes told the story as much as the songs. Barbara O’Donoghue opened with really cute little pajamas for the dreaming boy. The singers at Leroy’s Night Club ran through a variety of flashy suits. A trio of girls, which I think he called the Silver Belles, wore long blue smocks that peeled off to reveal short, tight gold-sequined nightclub dresses, gold-lamé gloves and plenty of diamonds. The men went from black tuxedoes to red velvet lounge jackets. Then they all appeared in cream-colored choir robes with sparkling bronze breastplates. Like everything else, the costumes were a visual treat.
Leroy is the owner of the night club, the man with the bowler hat on Jubilee’s logo, programs and lobby wall of honor. He’s the emcee of the night’s festivities, intended to raise money to pay the rent for his club. Leroy is played by Chanina Mwikuta with the charisma of an impresario, and a songster and dancer who sings solo and in ensemble and lathers up the audience. His sweet tenor voice is a pleasure to hear, his smooth movements a joy to watch. It’s Leroy who brings the rest of the singers to his Jubilation Celebration. Among the songs, his story about his “one ugly Christmas tree” was touching, sweetly sung and powerful as it evolved into “Oh Christmas Tree” by the ensemble, perhaps referring to how bad it once was in the early days of Jubilee.
But the musical actually opens with a young boy, played this night by 3rd grader Aaron D. Petite, assuring his mother, played by JuNene K, that they can get the rent money for old Mr. Perry “if you just believe.” His innocence and those cute little footie pajamas lent that “ohhhh” moment as we saw him introduce Leroy and the Jubilation Celebration.
Every member of this cast, each duet and trio, and the full ensemble playing with those luscious harmonies was joyful to hear and see. I heard nary a sour note. They not only had a purity to their singing, but were also powerfully strong when they belted a line or song. Each moved up and down stairways and platforms with ease and comfort of accomplished dancers. I could write paragraphs describing their personal moments but space allows only a few of the highlights.
Alyssa Lewis as Carol carried a stage presence bigger than the auditorium. Her deep alto voice broadened the range of the ensemble numbers, but when she cut loose on a solo it knocked your socks off! When she sang “Santa Baby,” the sexy favorite of standard Christmas fare, the temperature in the theater really began to elevate. She was both powerful and hilarious as she performed on all parts of the stage.
The Silver Belles included Jan, played by May Allen, and Sherry, played by JuNene K. They added the middle and top vocal range for the group and Allen gave us a solo, “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” while JuNene had her solo, “These Are a Few of my Favorite Things,” both adding the familiar warmth those two songs always bring.
The men were also busy, both as a three-man band, adding a fourth when Mwikuta’s Leroy joined in, that looked and sounded much like The Temptations or Four Tops. Their harmonies blended smoothly in carols and spirituals fused heavily with jazz. Each man contributed their unique vocal range to the group, but DeWayne, played by Oris Phillips Jr., and Hardy, played by Malcolm Beaty, also had soaring falsettos that reached in and massaged your heart strings. Each man, including Buster, played by Edward Beal, had solo moments showing their comfort with a wide range of styles. The highlight for me was a rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” that made that old, sometimes tired, favorite into something majestic. You couldn’t help tapping along. What a fabulous arrangement and beautiful execution!
Mama Em showed up to give the youthful, rowdy revelry a more spiritual reverence. Liz Francisco opened the service with “Oh Holy Night” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” with such deeply spiritual breadth and power that I couldn’t help thinking about the fabulous Mahalia Jackson. Later she slipped into her sexy, demure side in a duet with old Mr. Perry, played by Aaron Petite. He arrives just in time to collect rent from Leroy. When Petite and Francisco took the stage they paired in an innocent little love dance to the duet, “I Really Can’t Stay/Baby It’s Cold Outside,” that brought the house down.
When the boy returned to remind us what can be accomplished “if you just believe,” we learned something surprising about the boy - but you’ll have to see the show to find out what it is. It might help if you visit the website and read Jubilee’s history.
The story of Rudy Eastman, Leroy and Jubilee Theatre is a triumph of perseverance and patience. Jubilation The Christmas Musical fills our holiday spirits with laughter, song, dance, and the warmest of feelings. I kept seeing the theme of harmony throughout this show. It was evident in Geno Young’s many-tiered harmonies in all of songs. It was on the faces of the cast, and throughout all the production choices by Phyllis Cicero and her designers. It was a constant theme through the lyrics and the story being told. As Cicero wrote in her director’s notes, “The human need for fellowship is intensified during (Christmas) and we honor it in this production.”
Jubilation The Christmas Musical is a piece of holiday magic you won’t want to miss.
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