Let’s start here: Hallelujah, the definition of a farce is “a comedy that aims at entertaining the audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant and thus improbable.” “Soul Nativity” is conceived and directed by HSA Artistic Director Alfred Preisser and HSA Prep Director Tracy Johnson, and they deliver a gospel- and pop-infused and utterly entertaining farce, which includes over 40 top HSA students (ages 4 and up) and seasoned professionals.
Strong musicians, rousing singers and inspired choreography shed light on a holiday story, making the 78-minute soulful musical a solid holiday choice.
The premise of “Soul Nativity” explores the story of the Nativity through a very modern interpretation. Mary and Joseph are searching for a spare room in the cold, cruel, mean streets of Harlem—125th Street to be exact—and there is no Christian love or empathy to be found.
There is, however, a slew of sharp tongued gossip delivered by a “modern Greek-like” chorus and comedic commentary about “church going” folk who speak about love but can’t seem to find a single ounce to actually give, which is clearly designed to implore contemporary reflection.
There are no long-winded monologues, just creative freedom, and under Preisser and Johnson, the story keeps pace thanks to clever musical numbers that include rocking gospel, soulful R&B, popping pop and classic rock.
The real gems of “Soul Nativity” are the well-trained HSA students who bring life to every single movement from the moment the show begins to its rousing curtain call. Tremendous is a word that best describes the company collectively.
There are a few performances that stand head-and-shoulders above and are worth mentioning. Harlem native Graceson Abreu Nunez, who plays the Innkeeper and other musical roles, has a sparkling star quality that demands attention; the key is in the nuisances of his performance. As the silver-tongued pastor, Juaquin Bennett is one to watch, and Riana Ortiz, who plays Mary, is just 14 years old, but she delivers the message of pain and suffering so convincingly that it would surprise no one if she steps into a bright television, theater and film career.
Two guest gospel choirs raised the roof and the holy spirit: Voices of the Flame, under Jeff Bolding, founding artistic music director, and the Harlem Japanese Gospel Choir, under Minister Melody Moore. Both choirs delivered a shimmering emotional connection that engaged the spirit and demonstrated that the “voice” is an instrument that demands respect.
On the critical side, the 2015 production of “Soul Nativity” suffered greatly because of poor lighting. If there was any lighting design attempted, it was not evident. Another critical note is that the play could benefit from a slender trim—a loving nip and tuck—in the second act. The last two musical choices felt pushy and gratuitous: a vigorous attempt to muster more holiday spirit for an audience that was already happy; less is more, more or less.
“Soul Nativity” plays now through Dec. 20, Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. at Harlem School of the Arts, the Herb Alpert Center’s HSA Theatre at 645 St. Nicholas Ave. and 141st Street.
For more information, visit www.HSAnyc.org/soul-nativity.