Djembe Offers an Abundance of Performance Charm in an Overstuffed Plot

The set-up: If there hadn't been a little show on Broadway called The Lion King, this world premiere musical fairy tale from Carlton Leake (book, music, lyrics), scrumptiously realized on stage by director and choreographer Patdro Harris, would probably seem a lot better than it is.

Comparisons, however unfair, are unavoidable to Elton John's mega blockbuster. That the creators of Djembe and the Forest of Christmas Forgotten didn't seem to realize how high the bar had been set for tall tales set in Africa, even when the adorable mammals and birds in this telling don't sing and dance, dims their chances for a truly original theater piece. Colorful, always lively in its motion, and acted by veterans and newcomers to the Ensemble with more conviction than warranted by the material, Djembe still comes across as a decidedly poorer relation.

The execution: Djembe's story dooms the musical. Needlessly convoluted and padded, the plot uses two young girls with magical powers as protagonists, along with their two mothers who also have magical powers, added to a powerful king who goes into forced self-exile when his wife dies in childbirth, a forest watchman who, if I remember, can talk to spirits, and, of course, an evil sorceress, the king's sister, who usurps the throne and makes everybody's life miserable. There are villagers, who mysteriously disappear during the telling, and sibling hip-hop minions of the evil queen, who wear funky baseball hats and pants pulled down to the floor, who dance gloriously but have nothing whatsoever to do with the story. The animals, who peek out of the foliage, are absolutely adorable: the bright-plumed tropic bird has a tail of straw; the giraffe rises high off to the side of the stage; and the elephant, though surprisingly small in stature, has a proboscis with a life of its own.

But these wonderful veldt creatures don't add anything or do anything to move the plot forward. They, like most of the characters, are filler. They appear, make some noise, and go back into the jungle. It's a terrible waste of evocative characters. Think what riches The Lion King mined out of a warthog and a hyena.

Oh, yes, Christmas gets thrown into this melange - or the absence of Christmas in the mythical land of Abahu, which has something to do with a drum not being played. I'm hazy on the details because nothing in this musical carries any weight or commands attention. Motivations misfire, characters do their own thing regardless of what's expected, and nobody seems to care, least of all the writers.

That's not to say there isn't charm on view at the Ensemble. There is an abundance of performance charm, lots of it. Young Lauren Chanel Bogany (Nika) and younger Taylor Nelson (Blinah), the girls with some sort of magical power, are real troopers and showstoppers. Triple threats, they can act, dance, and sing. They easily hold their own against some of Ensemble's most nimble players. Their magical powers are of the theatrical variety, and, I hope, a life in the theater will be their calling. They hold magic in their hands.

Another Ensemble newcomer, albeit a bit more mature, is Christina Alfred, as Nika's mom. She, too, is welcomed back anytime. With a strikingly handsome stage presence, she can put across a power ballad like "Purpose," with the chops of Lena Horne, or put depth into her character which is, at best, hazy and indistinct. After a night in the forest, she falls for the king (Timothy Eric), and who could blame her? Tall and regal, with a roar of a voice, Eric draws appreciative whoops and moans of approval from the audience when he appears the next morning without his dreadlocks. He's cleaned up his act, you see, when Nia suddenly drops in. Chiseled of face and dripping macho appeal, he's the very embodiment of royalty. (But even Eric can't make us believe what author Leake wants us to believe.)

Ensemble regular Anthony Boggess-Glover, as T-Baum, the kingdom's spirit of Christmas, doesn't need anything like a script to hold the audience spellbound, he can do it all by himself. As an actor, he has that rare magic to hold us in the palm of his hand, no matter what. It may be his girth, which is prodigious, that commands attention, but it's his talent that's wider yet. You watch him, whatever he does. And that's real stage magic.

The same is true of Detria Ward, one of our favorite Houston theater treasures. All she has to do is walk on stage as evil Kalisha and our eyes follow her. With her snap delivery and soigné attitude - that saucy Mae West "Beulah, peel me a grape" attitude - Ward delivers without breaking a sweat. Her character changes when love is found with her major domo Danso (Ron Johnson, who gets the best number with the love song "The You I Once Knew"), but as usual with this musical, the transformation comes too fast and without adequate preparation. But Ward carries on as if nothing in the world could stop her. She is a pro, no doubt about it. As Blinah's mom, Roenia Thompson brings her warm, embracing talents to this thankless role and lights up the stage. The chorus is stirringly appointed by Larry Cooper, Jr.; Sara Gray; Silvanus LaToison; Crystal Sharadin; Tranice Desiree Shelton; and Shaka Sulaiman, as the mysterious Drummer.

Director/choreographer Harris supplies enough life and physicality for a decade of musicals with dance numbers that are beautifully crafted, exciting and audience-rousing, just what this musical needs. With loving assistance by scenic designer James V. Thomas, costumer Reggie Ray, and lighting by Eric Marsh, Djembe looks great, like a story book come to life. But the whole thing just doesn't come together. One resourceful little girl with special powers with one mother with special powers would be sufficient for any musical.

The verdict: Leake and Harris, who have supplied Ensemble with some really snazzy musicals, are on to something with Djembe, but they've over-stuffed it like a Thanksgiving turkey on steroids. There's a tasty meal in here somewhere. How may main courses do we need? Or want? Carlton Leake's Christmas musical plays through December 22 at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main Street. Purchase tickets online at ensemblehouston.com or call 713-520-0055. $44-$28.

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