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The songs and how they're sung are what make this musical endearing.
The songs and how they're sung are what make this musical endearing.
Photo by Derek Hawkins

Lift Every Voice and Sing in Ensemble's More Than Christmas

There are many misses in the world premiere musical More Than Christmas, playing through the holidays at Ensemble Theatre, but, through some miracle that can only happen this time of year, the hits overcome them. The singers are the high. Like singing Houdinis, the performers take the ordinary and elevate it into the heavens. Their magic powers are prodigious and awe-inspiring. They knock the breath out of you. This joyous celebration of talent puts one into a glorious Christmas mood.

The ordinary book wipes the smile right off.

Like many world premieres, this one needs work. Commissioned by the BOLD Theater Women's Leadership Circle, award-winning author Celeste Bedford Walker and Houstonian composer Stephanie York Blue, under the supervision of Ensemble's artistic director Eileen J. Morris, decided to write a family Christmas musical. This is a noble idea and a needed one. There's always room for another.

But there are so many characters to delineate in this bland family tale that no one can stand out with any specificity – except for Granny (the charismatic Vivian J. Reed). When she wails her 11 o'clock gospel number “Let There Be Peace in This Family,” she stops time. She is such a distinctive performer, who can top her? Others come close, to be sure, but only as singers, not characters.

Now a widow, Granny lives in the house that she and her beloved husband built decades ago. She has a profound faith in God, an abiding love for her family, and a rock-solid belief in traditional Christmas. She bewails what has befallen the holidays. The young are disrespectful, the adults mercenary. You might think that this rock-ribbed Christian woman wouldn't decorate her holiday home with pink flamingos, but such is the dramaturgy that realistic character traits don't seem to matter. The author's driving force seems to be whatever comes to mind – be it cheap laugh or misguided sentiment.

If a character's not a cartoon to begin with, he'll soon turn into one. That's what's so maddening. We're not expecting Albee, but a bit of reality would be refreshing.

Barring the saintly Granny, everyone in the family is a Scrooge in some way, only out for themselves. Her ostentatious son Roland (suave Werner Richmond), daughter/former club singer Pam (leather-lunged Regina Herne) and daughter/successful lawyer Michelle (An'tick von Morthxing, having an off-night with a wayward rasp) want to commandeer mom's house out from under her. Property values have risen dramatically and they want a killing. Nephew Kevin (Ronson Hawkins, in fine clear voice) sells everything he can lay his hands on at Ebay; and niece Lyric (Eboni Elleicia Williams, with electrifying pop soprano) cares only about her budding career. Roland's wife Heidi (Liz Rachelle, perceptively comic) is a mindless spendthrift; while Michelle's husband Randall (Kartez Jackson, smooth) is obsessed by the latest stock report and an impending job loss. There's a youth church choir, who seem to be in this musical solely to show off their young prodigious talent for singing and dancing. They are extraneous. But much here is extraneous.

Some of Blue's score is rote and forgettable, but then numbers like Lyric's “Holding On,” Pam's rousing gospel “Jesus Remains the Same,” Pam and Michelle's deeply-felt duet “Love Heals All,” Roland's comedy song “I'm the Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” slap us out of routine and move us deeply. The performers move us deeper. Just to hear them is reason enough to sit through it.

Cutting's in order, as are judicious rewrites to clearly define character. The show's choppy and doesn't flow, but the gist is there. You can see the shadows of its solid bones. Right now, there's too much interference.

Ah, but when Reed keens her gospel, Richmond struts, Hearne digs deep into her fragrant contralto, Williams belts with pop polish, and young Samuel Harvey (of the youth choir) nails a dance step like a Broadway pro, this new Christmas musical rips the roof off. The rush is very merry, indeed.

More Than Christmas continues through December 29 at 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. November 14 and 21 and Thursdays in December; 3 p.m. November 17 and 24 and Sundays in December. The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For information, call 713-520-0055 or visit ensemblehouston.com. $41 to $57.

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