Black Nativity Langston Hughes deemed Black Nativity his "gospel song play." Act One is all of those things, a soaring and gorgeous retelling of the birth of Christ that emphasizes the humanity of the people who witnessed the event. Director Ron Himes and musical director Diane White-Clayton mix American and African folk songs with traditional religious music (and one well-placed rap song) to fulfill Hughes' vision of a new, fully integrated black art form. Brilliant costuming by Reggie Ray and clockwork choreography by Keith Tyrone add visual punch to fantastic performances from Herman Gordon as the singing Joseph and the ethereal Heather Beal as the dancing Mary. Act Two has a modern gospel church setting, and while the performances are powerful and moving, the sense of story is minimal. While brimming with reverence and passionate singing, it lacks the narrative and inventiveness of the first half. That magnificent first act is more than worth the price of admission, however. Presented through December 27 (no performances on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day) by the Black Rep at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square. Tickets are $30.50 to $43 ($5 discount for students and seniors; $10 rush seats available for students 30 minutes before showtime). Call 314-534-3810 or visit www.theblackrep.org. — Paul Friswold
Brooklyn Boy Often the most gratifying theater sneaks up and stuns us. So it is with Donald Margulies' account of a traumatic week in the life of a novelist who sees his personal life unraveling even as he is finally receiving professional recognition and celebrity. Margulies has long been a writer of astute sensitivity; director Bobby Miller is in perfect harmony with the playwright's rhythms. This seamless production — pitch-perfect scenic design, costume design, you name it — is gorgeous to behold. Miller has allowed his actors the freedom to find their own characters, but they have found exactly what Miller wanted, thus delivering an evening of rare cohesion. They are all fine, and some more than that. Jason Cannon's dominant portrayal of the author is eloquently understated. R. Travis Estes is wrenching as a childhood friend whose ambitions have never extended beyond Brooklyn, and Paris McCarthy delivers a dazzling turn as a young groupie the novelist picks up after a book signing. Brooklyn Boy is one of the theater highlights of 2009. Produced by New Jewish Theatre through December 19 at Clayton High School, 2 Mark Twain Circle, Clayton. Tickets are $32 to $34 ($2 discount for seniors and JCC members). Call 314-442-3283 or visit www.newjewishtheatre.org. — Dennis Brown
A Christmas Story Reviewed in this issue.
A Man for All Seasons Here is one of the great theater mysteries: Why is Robert Bolt's luminous 1960s account of the conflict between Sir Thomas More and King Henry VIII over matters of faith and conscience so infrequently staged? Set in 16th-century England, when the king seeks to divorce his queen in order to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn, Bolt's script is a triumph of intelligent storytelling. It introduces us to someone we meet all too rarely in the theater nowadays: a man of rare courage and quiet conviction. But there's far too much posing in this current staging (directed by Milt Zoth), as if the actors have been told they're in an Important Play. In the title role, William Roth's heart is in the right place, but he lacks gravitas and authority. Only Kevin Beyer as the villainous Thomas Cromwell is in total command. Produced by St. Louis Actors' Studio through December 20 at the Missouri History Museum, Lindell Boulevard and DeBaliviere Avenue (in Forest Park). Tickets are $25 ($18 for students and seniors). Call 314-458-2978 or visit www.stlas.org. (DB)
An O. Henry Christmas Reviewed in this issue.
Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You Christopher Durang's skewering of Catholicism would seemingly live and die on the strength of its title character, who alternately lectures and harangues the audience on the basics of the Church. Sister Mary Ignatius (Margeau Baue Steinau) is cheerful, enthusiastic and a little fuzzy on Biblical matters, the type of nun who delights in sharing the bad news about the good book. Steinau leavens Sister Mary's love of misery with a subtle battiness; she's a flawed educator, but endearingly so. The show is riven by a similar contradiction. At the midpoint, four former students interrupt the teaching with a hilariously amateurish Christmas pageant, and the audience accepts it as farce. Each of those students then shares the failures of their adult lives — still funny, especially as Sister identifies their moments of human weakness as either venal or mortal sin, oblivious to the hurt she causes. But when Diane (Jenn Bock) shares her horrible recent past, she does so without a scintilla of humor (satirical, black or otherwise), and the show deflates into a bitter and mean-spirited puddle. Steinau and former pupil B. Weller do exemplary work to wrestle the show back into Durang's anarchic orbit, but the schism is too great. What began as a funny piece of irreverence now seems a sucker punch thrown either to shock (poorly) or antagonize the sort of audience member who protested the show almost 30 years ago. Presented by Stray Dog Theatre at Tower Grove Abbey (2336 Tennessee Avenue; 314-865-1995 or www.straydogtheatre.org) through Saturday, December 19. Tickets are $18 to $20. (PF)