The setup: For several if not most of the past 17 years, Black Theatre Troupe presented Langston Hughes' seminal 1961 pageant Black Nativity as its Christmas show. I never got to see it, but I hear it's rather awesome, and now it's a Major Motion Picture.
Meanwhile, BTT is premièring a new Gospel jukebox musical called Tellin' It on the Mountain. It is beautifully sung and certainly among the most overtly Christ-focused and spiritually rousing plays you will ever see outside the walls of a church.
The execution: This is where, like a spouse who keeps small injuries bottled up until the hurt explodes out of all proportion to the current offense, I will rant about incomplete, incorrect, and/or misleading promotional and program copy. It seems to be a particular problem for musicals.
Although the original buzz about Tellin' It on the Mountain was that it featured "book and lyrics by Lyn Richardson, music by Anthony Cowan [professional musician and piano instructor at East Valley School of Music] and Jennifer Robinson [former director of the Arizona State University Gospel Choir, who is still credited as providing "musical supervision" to Mountain]," every information source except Black Theatre Troupe's own website has revised those writing credits to represent the show as it is: Virtually all the songs in the play, every one of which is breathtakingly rendered by the cast, are existing contemporary and traditional Gospel numbers, with a few R&B ballads and Christmas carols thrown in.
Something happened to the concept of having new, original songs in the play, and no one's obliged to explain how or why it changed, but the writers of the songs that are used, the titles which are meticulously listed in the program, are not credited and deserve to be. And if you're unfamiliar with the contemporary Gospel genre (which is certainly not BTT's fault), you could wind up thinking many of the numbers are amazing new songs that you're honored to be hearing in their infancy. (Well, now you won't.)
Lyn Richardson is still the playwright, and she also appears in Act II as the charismatic narrator of the Christmas album that the characters Teresa, Vicki, and Shandi, estranged sisters who, five years ago, were a chart-busting, megawatt praise trio called Sister Dean, have reunited to record for reasons it's dramatically useful to leave somewhat fuzzy.
Richardson's script, which manages to be both heavy on exposition and light on explanation, is the weak link in this production. The three sisters do have a believably tempestuous and competitive relationship (though much of what humor there is comes from lukewarm responses to tired insults), and the playwright sets up an adequate cliffhanger just before intermission -- but most of the characters' individual traits are described by others rather than demonstrated by behavior.
One challenge of writing a musical about singers is distinguishing scenes in which characters are rehearsing or performing from scenes in which people are singing for mundane reasons we accept from characters in musicals: someone's angry, there's work to be done, it's snowing, etc. Richardson's script doesn't always clear this hurdle, no matter what the ensuing song is. At one point, the ambiguity furthers the plot, which is an interesting idea but feels a little bizarrely half-baked in its execution.
But once we're solidly into Act II, which becomes seamlessly sung-through when the "recording" begins (a smoothness that will, oddly, appear unrealistic to anyone who has performed for a recording), the music takes over, the presence of Richardson and backup singers further energizes the ensemble, and the show comes into its own.
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The audience responds to the show with great enthusiasm, and the quality of the cast's vocals is such that particular runs sometimes provoked shouts and applause in the middle of a lyric. Ebony Green gives a warm, sincere rendition of "For My Good" that foreshadows her character's convincingly understated revelation of what Shandi's kept from her family, secrets that have left her damaged but not defeated.
The verdict: Though Tellin' It on the Mountain, in its current form, does not rise to the level of a beloved annual tradition, the production's powerful musicality makes it an enjoyable experience, and it is also super-Jesusy, in case that's your cup of tea. Tellin' It on the Mountain continues through Sunday, December 22, at 1333 East Washington Street. Admission is $35; order tickets here or call 602-258-8129.