Confession – traditional holiday shows make me want to run, hide and not resurface until the New Year has begun. It’s not that I’m a Scrooge this time of year. I actually like all the fun, family, food and festivities the season brings. But as a critic, watching show after show of heartwarming, predictable, formulaic, unchallenging, emotionally manipulative and intellectually soggy fare makes me as itchy as that sweater your great aunt knitted for you a couple Christmases ago.
So an original, world premiere Christmas musical set in sunny West Palm Beach, with a score made up of R&B numbers, at least sounded like a crack at something different. But while Soulful Sounds of Christmas, with book, music and lyrics by Chika Kaba Ma’Atunde (based on a concept and title by Greg Williams Jr), has unique elements, it’s also a show that’s ultimately undone by its own narrative weaknesses and dodgy production values.
The backdrop to the show is Christmastime, but in truth this is a show that could take place at any time of year. That the holiday factors at all feels jammed in for programming rather than a germane plot point.
All the action takes place in sunny Florida, as the candy floss pastel set design (by James V. Thomas) attempts to indicate. Here Ella (Regina Hearne) runs a restaurant that is the community gathering place for her friends and family. She’s a giver, Ella is. Money to charity, jobs to her cousins post Hurricane Irma and time and love to all who need it. Less sensitive are her successful businesswoman sister, Karla (An’gelle Sylvester) or her recently divorced and on the prowl brother Victor (Andre Neal). They’re not bad souls, just caught up in their own stuff. Still, the family is a close one.
Then there is Tina (Bridgjette Taylor-Jackson), a single mom barely holding it together. She’s been best friends with Victor all her life and everyone, no one more so than Ella, wants the pair to finally get out of the friend zone and into the love nest, pronto. On Ella’s orders, a plan is hatched to make this happen. However along the way, Ella has a serious health scare that makes her, and others realize that, it’s time for Ella to take, instead of give, and for the people she cares about to step up and come together.
It’s a flimsy plot at best. One that holds no surprises, throws in expected tensions, resolves everything neatly and at times defies even our holiday suspension of belief. Without giving away too much plot (although it’s like watching a train barrelling forward in slo-mo it’s so blatant) it must be asked, what human being can recover completely from major, complicated organ surgery in 2 weeks? Not only recover, but dance their tushies off to boot?
And yet, even with the faults in the show (not helped in the slightest by the paceless direction of Patdro Harris or his predominantly uninspired group-huddle and sway choreography), there is something pleasantly satisfying thanks to Ma’Atunde’s music and the across the board incredible vocal talents that populate the stage. That these performers managed to shine in spite of the many technical issues on opening night, issues that rendered several of the songs inaudible, is a testament to their talent.
With 20 odd numbers in total, the show is an homage to the Contemporary R&B sounds of the 70’s, 80’s with a touch of the 90’s thrown in here and there. The music is smooth, base-fueled, with a little funk, a bit of gospel, leaning towards ballads at times but always with a beat that makes you groove in your seat.
Sure many of the songs are overly derivative. Christmas is a Family Affair should either be a total riff on Sly and the Family Stone’s, A Family Affair, or it should back off on the similarities. And too often lyrics sound like explanatory dialogue cobbled together to fit the notes rather than inspired musical emoting. Ella’s That Could Have Been Me, a song about how she almost ended up in a women’s shelter is more detailed play by play than moving musical number. And yet even with these issues, this is the kind of music that goes down like honey on a sore throat and we can’t help but be happily soothed by its funky smoothness.
Thankfully we also get numbers like Tina’s soulfully pleading power ballad, Once Again, that brings the house down with its raw vulnerability. Close your eyes during Tina and Victor’s duet, You’re My Friend, and you’d swear that it’s a Lionel Ritchie/Diana Ross reunion song. Good Time, Good Time (Salsa), I Like This Groove and Do It – the four numbers that close off Act 1 in continuous song cycle fashion are the best example of how a good beat with a rhythmic groove can make an entire audience smile wide as they boogie in their seats.
Yes we know that the story is silly. Yes we know this show has other issues –why is there an older DJ character (Anthony Boggess-Glover) situated stage left for most of the show flipping through papers, playing on his iPad and occasionally joining in on the action? Why did they have to keep bringing in the adorable young actors in this show (Tabitha Clay, Elijah E. Goston, Jayla McDonald, Kyle Anthony Mosley and Kai Tregre) to “cute” numbers up instead of just using these young talents judiciously? What on earth were they thinking suddenly injecting projections of Victor and silhouetted ladies during his anti-marriage number, Not Again?
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Perhaps the answer is that this is a premier and no show is perfect first time out. Tweak it, tighten it, fix the jerky and sludgy pacing and give us choreography that wows or comes close to wowing every number….. one hundred times better, I’d venture.
But let’s not forget, that as inconsequential as Christmas may be in this musical, it’s still a holiday show. So maybe asking too much of it is unfair. To the show’s credit, not once was heard the jingle of bells or a carol-like number, nor were we asked to endure the softening of hardened hearts or the usual holiday angsty narrative paths. And hey, that’s progress, right? Kinda?
Y’know what…..just cue the R&B. That seems to block out all issues and questions. Instead we just groove.
Soulful Sounds of Christmas continues through December 30 at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main Street. For tickets, call 713-520-0055 or visit ensemblehouston.com. $36 to $61.