'Tis the season for gooey sentiments, so you'd better watch out if you're headed for the New Denver Civic's gangly rendition of Louisa May Alcott's classic Little Women. But there's no need to pout: The real thing is out there in theaterland this holiday season, if you know where to look. Look to Eulipions' yearly Christmas offering Black Nativity--Denver's only authentically religious show by a professional theater company (as opposed to amateur night down at the local church of your choice). And for secular humanists with a hankering for the eternal, there's RiverTree Theatre's slow-paced but warming Our Town, by Thornton Wilder.
Once you see Black Nativity, you understand what's missing from other seasonal offerings: This director and cast really believe in the music they perform. While most of the holiday shows try to exploit seasonal nostalgia (one more consumer product among so many), the one at Eulipions is far more concerned with the message of the season: "Forgiveness, Understanding, Peace," as one song puts it. There's plenty of sophisticated gospel styling in each carol and hymn, but it's the emotions girding the music that raise goosebumps in the bleachers.
This year Eulipions has moved into its new space, a wondrous old Masonic temple on Sherman Street with beautiful wood paneling, great arena seating, good acoustics and a lavish carpeted floor. The performers have much more freedom of movement than they did in the cramped space of the old company residence on Welton Street. The large cast can gracefully swirl through songs like the exquisite African chant "Odunde" and the equally lovely spiritual "Born in a Manger." The choreography, by A'Dove, reflects this newfound liberation, with lovely full-company movement and specialized dances by Enoch M. Boyd, Ajaa Jones-Ford, Debbie Johnson-Lee, Sarah Rayburn, Monique Sylvain and Dawnyle Willard. But topping them all is A'Dove's own elegant performance. His move to Denver from Washington, D.C., bodes well for the new Eulipions season; Denver is lucky to get so refined a dancer.
The text, by Langston Hughes, has been altered from last year's performance--some of the righteous indignation has been excised--but the heart of the production remains the same. The first act tells of the birth of three great religions--Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The story of the birth of Jesus follows in verse, prose, citations from the Bible and song and dance. A glorious gospel version of "O Holy Night" sung in duet by Larry Wren, an accomplished tenor, and Juanita Pope, a dazzling soprano, is one of the high points of the first act. Joanne Rucker Perkins's "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" is gospel at its finest, and the full-ensemble "O Come All Ye Faithful" is likely to raise the fine hairs on your arms.
The second act takes us into the present with re-enactments of contemporary social problems confronting the African-American community. Mary McNeil Jones gives a magnificent "Go Down Moses" with her gravel-enriched voice, and the younger cast members get their chance to dance and sing, two by two, with the lively "Go Children (Go Where I Send Thee)." Best of all, young TaGana DeCluette sings John 3:16 with superbly refined free-form gospel technique. She's a prodigy on her way to the big time.
There are a few moments that need work here, but a spirit lives in this show--and that is more than enough.
A gentle spirit of another kind blows over Thorton Wilder's classic Our Town. Wilder once wrote that "our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind--not in the scenery," so the stage is nearly bare and painted a dull, dark gray. A couple of stepladders lean against the back wall, and a few gray stools are strategically placed around the stage. The Stage Manager enters, sets the scene for us, introduces the actors and tells about the little New Hampshire town where the play takes place. He is kindly, gracious, and perhaps even a trifle sentimental--or so it seems at first.
We meet the Webbs and the Gibbses, next-door neighbors whose children grow up together. Emily Webb marries George Gibbs after a sweet, funny courtship meant to inspire confidence in small-town life and old-fashioned American values. In fact, the whole first act seems a little mushy, with its emphasis on the goodness of ordinary people. Nobody commits murder or adultery, steals from his neighbors or beats his children. But Wilder has bigger fish to fry than merely exposing human depravity.
The second act soon makes clear what he's up to and validates the benign sentiments of the first act. One of the central characters has the opportunity to view mortal experience from the vantage point of eternity. And for a moment, so do we. The most ordinary life seen in the right light is truly marvelous. And most of the time, even the best of us live unconsciously in the world--failing to see or feel it. So Wilder doesn't give his characters a whole lot of problems--he makes them of common clay so there will be no distractions from his essential vision. He lets us see the character of our lives--how we live in a dream. Wilder's is an unsentimental vision. He believes in an unorthodox view of eternal life, compared to which oblivion is a walk in the park.
Director Mary Chandler's approach is somewhat more somber than is usual for this piece. The good news is Pat Mahoney's cantankerous yet compassionate Stage Manager, who shuffles through the whole show like an omniscient god nurturing his corner of nature and blessing it with his wisdom. The bad news is that because the pace is so slow in the first act, the second act is undermined--we need to feel the weight of eternity come caving in on us at the funeral. And only Mahoney carries off the New Hampshire accent--the rest of the cast just can't manage it well enough to justify its use.
Still, Wilder's message does come through, and this production of the play doesn't suffer from the self-conscious preciousness that has afflicted so many others. Chandler's deliberate approach gives it a harder edge that is ultimately authentic. And if it's a little too slow, it has lively, memorable moments that make it admirable seasonal fare--most notably, performances by Mary Beth Rikeman as Mrs. Webb, who is so real she lives in your dreams, Dana McCarthy as the drunken choirmaster, and Kami Lichtenberg in a variety of roles.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Industrial Arts' awkward Little Women, which manages to sweeten up Louisa May Alcott without capturing any of her genuine goodness. Perhaps you just have to be under twelve to swallow this kind of schmaltz. The young actors who play the March sisters are all charming enough--pretty, energetic and comfortable on stage. Particularly impressive are Erin Prestia as the narrator (the grown-up Jo) and Erica Brookhart as her teenage counterpart.
So apart from a couple of sappy performances by the grownups, the biggest problem lies with playwrights Robin Ervin and Gail Yemington's interpretation of the story. Too many of the characters spend the whole play congratulating themselves on their family values. All that saccharine concern appears designed to inspire adulation, whereas genuine familial affection is never self-conscious.
Unlike Gillian Armstrong's 1994 film, the play covers only half the book. Yet a number of scenes, particularly in the second act, are simply too long and redundant for theater. We don't need, for example, to see the girls dreaming about their futures twice--we already know what they want out of life. The show would be much tighter and more powerful if it lasted ninety minutes instead of the laborious two hours.
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Of course, it really is very difficult to make convincing portraits out of these characters if you are too much in love with them. So many girls read Little Women before they leave elementary school that the book becomes a kind of icon of their childhood. It takes wisdom and a little restraint to make the characters come to life on stage--and restraint is the one ingredient too obviously lacking in this production.
Black Nativity, through December 21 at the New Eulipions Cultural Center, 1770 Sherman Street, 863-0026.
Our Town, through December 21 at the RiverTree Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, 825-8150.
Little Women, through December 22 at the New Denver Civic, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 595-3821.