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Wednesday, December 10,2008

Gratest story ever told

'Hymn' plays like same old Christmas pageant

by Tom Helma
(From left) Nathan M. Hosner, Sharriese Hamilton (kneeling), Kristi Starnes, Jonathan Wagner, Lara Bidus, Bryant Bentley and Ruth Crawford in "Hymn & Carol. Photos courtesy of Trumpie Photography

REVIEW


There may be no greater challenge during the holiday season than finding a theatrical production that has little to do with the age-old tale of Jesus’ birth. While we give lip service to the notion that this is the season of holidays (plural), we fail to include, for example, Dec. 9, when the Buddha became enlightened while sitting under the Bodhi tree. Audiences sitting under the lights at the lighthearted “Hymn & Carol,” now showing at BoarsHead Theater, will not experience a similar enlightenment.

“Hymn & Carol,” by Paul Slade Smith, is meant to be a modern, musical take on the oldest Christmas story ever told, an attempt at a clever re-telling of the basic elements of the birth story of Jesus. But it turns out to be far more conventional than contemporary and more like the annual holiday pageant at a mainstream Christian church than what one expects at a theater.

The show intersperses slightly offbeat, vaguely comic monologues paraphrasing the essential mythic and historical elements of the birth of the Christ-child with ensemble singing of the most traditional-sounding Christmas hymns. Under John Dale Smith’s musical direction, the group-sing is elegant and excellent. Individual singing is far less spectacular.

While Sharriese Hamilton is truly an angel of the highest magnitude with a pure and piercing soprano voice, Lara Bidus and Kristi Starnes waver and wobble through their individual solos. Ruth Crawford takes a bluesy pass at the soulful Joni Mitchell song “River.” While she doesn’t pass for Mitchell, she does a fine rendition.

Nathan Hosner ends Act 1 with a slow-moving, mildly humorous explanation of why there was no room at the inn when Joseph and pregnant teenager Mary arrived. The tepid response of the audience — snickers, giggles and snorts — never really rises to the level of actual laughter.

Bryant Bentley is quite animated and does capable characterizations, but the story lines he delivers are mostly insipid.

There are several monologues in the show, each one trying for a chuckle at some aspect of the old, old story, yet with a new twist. But what could be funny about King Herod’s orders to annihilate all children in order to snuff out the Messiah-child? Is there anything really amusing about watching the spin control of Herod’s advisors as they try to soften this heinous act?

While staging is not spectacular, it is clearly the thoughtful result of director Kristine Thatcher’s competence. The ensemble moves smoothly, albeit slowly, on and off stage.

In the end, one is left wondering why this show wasn’t booked at a local church instead of a theater.

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