The Classical Theater of Harlem’s Christmas musical The First Noel opens on the mainstage of the Apollo Theater this week. This show marks the third I’ve seen by the Classical Theater of Harlem – the first one at the large, inviting amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park, and the second at 3-Legged Dog, an experimental multimedia and theater company south of the World Trade Center. Each venue couldn’t be more different, but each time, the company managed to fill these extraordinary spaces to the brim with their exuberant, thoroughly unique personality. The First Noel at the legendary Apollo Theater is no exception.
The show tells the story of Noel, a young woman who learns of her mother’s death just days before her return to her childhood home in Harlem for Christmas. Overwhelmed, sad, and alone, Noel just wants to put the past behind her. As she waits on the paperwork that will complete the sale of the family brownstone, she finds memories of her family – and of one Christmas in particular – flooding back to her. We are taken back to Christmas in 1985 through the eyes of both the present-day Noel and her eight-year-old self, whose greatest desire is for her family to be filled with the Christmas spirit (and to get a Walkman). But Noel’s family doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Instead, per her mother’s instructions, each year the holiday season is set aside for mourning the family’s first child, a daughter who died just before Noel’s birth, who left behind only her name and a rift in the family that spans three generations.
The plot is formulaically sweet, if not a little predictable. But it’s not necessarily the story that draws you in. You know the show is going to be something special when you see funeral mourners in the opening scenes explode into a mesmerizing dance number, accompanied by the unbelievable vocal powers of soloist Angela Birchett. Throughout the show, the ensemble buoys the performance with choreography and musical numbers that can range from pop to gospel to Christmas carols, or a combination of all three. Whether clad in colorful eighties garb, church choir robes, or sparkly Christmas costumes recalling the Rockettes, the ensemble helps make this show visually captivating.
But not to be outdone is the main cast, packed with vocal talent. Nia Bonita Caesar shines as Young Noel, and her adult costars bring to life moving characters and touching solo songs. Soara-Joye Ross and Ken Robinson play Noel’s parents, each grappling in different ways with the death of their young daughter nine years earlier. Tina Fabrique is Ethel, Noel’s grandmother and fairy godmother, and Ashley Ware Jenkins is Adult Noel, watching unseen as the events of Christmas 1985 replay before her eyes.
The First Noel makes a welcome addition to the traditions of the Christmas season. With a brilliant cast and a rousing repertoire, it’s a show that invites audience members of all ages to sing, dance, clap, and celebrate Harlem and the spirit of Christmas.