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The Spirit Moves Them 

Dancers delight in theater's “Black Nativity.”

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The holidays are celebrated on stage in a myriad of ways but I have never seen an observance more exuberant than the African American Repertory Theatre's “Black Nativity.” The production — one part musical theater, two parts tent revival — nearly bursts through the confines of the intimate Gottwald Playhouse at CenterStage, the cast of 27 conjuring big voices in support of a slew of Christian spirituals.

The show's highlights are provided by a half-dozen lithe and lovely dancers — most of them still in middle school and members of the City Dance Theatre (the two boys — Johnnie Mercer Jr. and Brandon Penn — perform in every show, two groups of four girls alternate performances). They bound across the stage with wondrous abandon, expertly choreographed by Willie Hinton. Backed by a peppy four-piece combo (musical direction by James Henley) and evocatively outfitted by costume designer Margaret Joyner, both the singers and the dancers lend a contemporary energy to the tried-and-true story of Mary and Joseph and their trip to Bethlehem.

Narration and inspirational rhetoric are provided by Alfred Powell, a charismatic preacher. Director Derome Scott Smith has chosen his ensemble members well and several of them are given moments to shine — Topaz Wise's solo on “Now Behold the Lamb” and Michael Braxton's uplifting “Mary Did You Know” each gave me goose bumps.

It's a shame that the show loses most of its theatricality after the savior is born about halfway through the first act. The entire second act is given over to songs of praise and thanksgiving, delivered fervently by the ensemble but largely without narrative adornment. I would have liked to see fine actors like Katrina Carol Lewis (Mary) and Dustin Faltz (Joseph) given more to do. As it is, Kesha Afrika Oliver as the Angel of the Lord makes the best acting impression, her sweet and sassy presence melding well with the dancers' engaging innocence to create a truly divine spectacle. S

“Black Nativity” will run through Dec. 20 at CenterStage, 660 E. Grace St.  and from Dec. 26 to Jan. 3 at the Empire Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. Tickets are $37-$40. Call 344-8040 or go to barksdalerichmond.org  for details.

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