Tonight I was able to attend the very first preview of The First Noel, a band new holiday musical produced by the Classical Theatre of Harlem.
There are plenty of holiday musicals out there, including who knows how many versions of A Christmas Carol. With so many winter-themed extravaganzas, it might seem impossible for a new Christmas show to do anything fresh, yet that is exactly what The First Noel manages to accomplish.
For many people, the holidays can be a sad time, because of all the memories of departed loved ones we wished were still with us. I remember as a child watching my grandmother cry on Christmas Day. I couldn't understand how she could be so sad, but the ghosts of the past continued to haunt her.
The First Noel deals with a lot of tropes about Christmas: the commercialism, the inevitable family disputes, the persistence of poverty in the midst of plenty. First and foremost, however, it is a play about grief. It tells the story of a woman who must find a way to honor those gone while still being present in the moment for those who remain with us.
A memory play, The First Noel introduces the audience to a woman named--not coincidentally--Noel (played by Ashley Ware Jenkins). A successful photographer living in Atlanta, Noel returns to Harlem after the passing of her mother. In the family Brownstone once again, she watches a flood of memories rush by. Her younger self (played by Nia Bonita Caesar) wants nothing more than a new Walkman for Christmas, but for some strange reason, her family no longer celebrates the holiday.
I won't give any spoilers, but the audience also sees a ghostly presence billed in the program as "First Noel" (played by Zariah Jani Singletary), a young girl of about the same age. Noel's mother (played by Soara-Joye Ross) is haunted by a dark tragedy in her past. Twice, we see her nightmares re-enacted onstage with the frightening logic of dreams. The dead will not let her rest until she finally learns to let go and move on with her life.
And this is a Christmas story? Well... yes! Characters wrestle with faith throughout the show, and an onstage gospel choir won't let us forget that there is a spiritual message at the heart of the Christmas holiday. For those tired of the umpteenth Scrooge, overgrown elves, green grinches and bee-bee guns that can shoot your eye out, The First Noel offers a refreshing and faith-centered alternative.
Lelund Durond Thompson and Jason Michael Webb collaborated on the book, music, and lyrics. Steve H. Broadnax III directed the show, and Brian Harlan Brooks provided some outstanding choreography.
The First Noel is playing until New Year's Eve at the historic Apollo Theatre. For more information and tickets, check out:
The Classical Theatre of Harlem