It's the sound of angels singing

THEATER REVIEW: "The Nativity" by Congo Square at the Goodman Theatre ★★★

This year, women are very much in charge of the Congo Square Theatre's annual production of "The Nativity." Starting with the new director, Ilesa Duncan, and extending all the way up to Gabriel.

That archangel is played this year by Alexis J. Rogers, who lit up Hyde Park this summer with her performance as Bess in Court Theatre's production of "Porgy and Bess." Rogers is not the only member of that distiguished musical ensemble to also don the choir robes and the heavy jewelry for Congo Square this year. Under the musical direction of Jaret Landon, "Nativity" has never sounded better these past 12 years.

Admirers of Langston Hughes will note that this is not the traditional "Black Nativity" (first seen on Broadway in 1961, "Black Nativity" featured the Gospel story in Act 1 and a gospel concert in Act 2). Beginning last year, Congo Square forged a new adaptation — or homage to the original. McKinley Johnson's new version drops the word "black" from the title (in deference to Hughes and his estate), but remains a fervently spirtual piece, firmly rooted in the African-American tradition and without any compromises in the face of our increasingly secular holiday season.

The main difference from years' past is that the gospel-music sequence has been dropped in favor of a shorter bill of Christmas music in a gospel style, following the narrative of the birth of Jesus.

The piece is now a 100-minute, one-act, and Johnson updates some of the biblical references to include timely matters such as a low FICO score, meaning that Mary and Joseph must spend the night in the stable.

But that added humor is very much within the gently anachronistic tradition of the Hughes original, and most of the other familiar components remain, including the dance roles of Mary and Joseph, performed, as gently and beautifully as ever, by Kathleen Purcell Turner and Kevin Dirckson.

Duncan's staging (Congo Square traditionally performs this show at the Goodman Theatre) is simple. I do miss some of the old pageantry and, as I felt last year, there is a dramatic sag in this piece about three-quarters of the way through.

But there is no sag whatsoever in the music this year, which is accompanied by a live band. In the role of the Mother of Mary, Bethany Thomas — a young actress whom I've watched for years but whose voice seems to have exploded like the Fourth of July just in the last few months — offers up an extraordinarily thrilling and emotional version of "O Holy Night" that is enough to put one in awe of the season, all on its own.

"Fall on your knees," indeed. Or maybe take to your feet.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Dec. 31

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Tickets: $45 at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org

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