Review: ‘The First Noel’ Brings the Message of Christmas Home
By Megan Wrappe, Contributing Writer, December 14, 2016
The Christmas season is supposed to be a happy time. It’s the time of year to be with loved ones making memories that will last a lifetime. But for Noel and her family, Christmas isn’t allowed to happen.
In the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of The First Noel, with book, music and lyrics by Lelund Durond and Jason Michael Webb and directed by Steve H. Broadnax, three generations of the same family come together to help the now-adult Noel (Ashley Ware Jenkins) remember her past. Having recently lost her mother, Noel is back in New York to settle family affairs and put her childhood home, a Harlem brownstone, up for sale. But when she steps into the house, she’s instantly flooded with memories of her childhood, and they won’t quite let her go.
Noel’s memories take her back to the Christmas of 1985 when she was 9-years-old. Young Noel (Nia Bonita Caesar) is just wanting to have a memorable Christmas, but her mother Deloris (Soara-Joye Ross) won’t allow it, having lost her first daughter, the ‘first Noel’ (Zariah Jani Singletary), during a previous Christmas season. Still mourning her daughter, Deloris is unable to embrace the holiday spirit.
Her grief has also led to a breakdown of communication with her mother, Ethel (Tina Fabrique), with whom she no longer speaks. But when Deloris’ husband, Henry (Ken Robinson), invites Ethel to visit, the grandmother attempts to both reconcile with her daughter and bring a little Christmas spirit back into the house. She also receives some much needed help in smoothing things over from her friend Lou (Lizan Mitchell) and family friend Skeeter (Brian D. Coats).
This production is a remounting of The First Noel, having premiered last year, and it’s clear why it has returned. Every element of this musical deals with something with which one can relate. If you’ve lost a loved one, you may identify with Deloris’ grief and pain, or the quintessential sentiment of a child not feeling understood, and then seeing Noel’s attempts at getting her parent’s attention will pull at your heartstrings. If you’ve ever dealt with family drama (and who hasn’t), this show will have resonance for you.
But at its heart, The First Noel does a wonderful job of reminding us about the true meaning of Christmas. It isn’t about presents or decorations—the holidays are about family and being around the ones you love. For whatever reason, Deloris is afraid to do just that. But thanks to Noel’s innocence and understanding, played beautifully by Nia Bonita Caesar, she eventually sees that she can’t hold onto the past forever. And Ethel, played so eloquently by Tina Fabrique, also helps her to understand that she shouldn’t let her daughter’s passing overshadow her love for her remaining daughter.
And if the story wasn’t powerful enough, The First Noel has all the bells and whistles a top musical should have. From an eclectic score to flawless dance sequences and melodious voices—there wasn’t a single moment that wasn’t fully charged and entertaining. This cast and production by the Classical Theatre of Harlem makes a strong case that The First Noel should be on the boards for many Christmases to come.
The First Noel, presented by the Classical Theatre of Harlem at the Apollo Theater on December 10-18, 2016. Book, music and lyrics by Lelund Durond Thompson and Jason Michael Webb. Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III; choreography by Brian Harlan Brooks; musical direction by Andrew Lederman; scenic design by Dan Robinson; costume design by Rachel Dozier-Ezell; lighting design by Alan C. Edwards; sound and projection design by Curtis Craig. Cast: Brian D. Coats (Skeeter); Tina Fabrique (Grandmother Ethel); Ashley Ware Jenkins (Noel); Donald King Jr. (Benny Raindrop); Lizan Mitchell (Lou); Ken Robinson (Henry); Soara-Joye Ross (Deloris); Nia Caesar and Zariah Singletary (Young Noel); with James Alexander, Angela Birchett, Jesse Corbin, Darius Crenshaw, Tamara Jade Fingal, Ayana George, LaTrisa A. Harper, Adam Hyndman, Sarita Amani Nash, Drew Shade, Chawntá Marie Van, Tiffany Webb and Helen White.
Cover: Zariah Singletary in ‘The First Noel’; photo: Margot Jordan