Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Review: 'A Cappella Humana'

A world-premiere Christmas show at Delaware Theatre Company -- a mix of music and nativity storytelling -- puts the plot in the present, tweets and all. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews from Wilmington.

Review: 'A Cappella Humana'

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From "A Cappella Humana," (from left) Mykal Kilgore, David Marmanillo, Katie Zaffrann, Clinton Derricks-Carroll, Daniella Dalli, Jannie Jones and Chesney Snow. Photo by Joe del Tufo.
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By Howard Shapiro

In a season filled with new and original holiday shows from the region’s professional theaters, you’ll find some with a more traditional sugar-coating than Delaware Theatre Company’s A Cappella Humana, but I doubt you’ll find anything more inventive.

This retelling of the nativity in modern terms, with three Magi guided by a star only after their GPS conks out, links the story through the ages and is especially effective in Kevin Ramsey’s staging of a cast with with wide-ranging singing voices and a smooth upper register when they sing as one.

Ramsey, whose work is a staple at Delaware Theatre Company, also created A Cappella Humana and along with his niece, Pearl Ramsey, wrote the book for the show. It is, until it takes a dive in its very last part, a holiday treat but not a confection — the highest-concept Christmas show I can remember seeing. The nativity here, and the story beyond it, is retold as a reality TV show, which sounds cheesy but in the Ramseys’ creation has a pertinence that links now with long ago.

In one scene, people text messages to one another as we read them on two of three screens that cover the rear and sides of the stage; in others, they tell pieces of the story as regular people thrown into the plot, and are interrupted by the strains of their everyday lives — or by a commercial.

There’s something oddly transporting about all of this, as if we’re in a time machine that hasn’t quite left but moves us backward, even so. And it’s highly spiritual, laden with traditional, sacred and gospel numbers, and even a piece by Kevin Ramsey about taxes, which figure big in the story then as now. You could call A Cappella Humana the first Liturgical Jukebox musical.

Too bad, then, that it goes awry suddenly and in such fast descent. A Cappella Humana offers its surprising, impressive little twists through the first act and some of the second, then loses control of its steering. In a quest to develop tension and deliver messages about  the differences in what we strive for and what we actually do, the show turns so heavy-handed in its last 20 minutes, it’s like being forced to take medicine.

The pummeling morality message left me exiting the theater cold; it wasn’t until I thought about what I’d seen for the 90 minutes before A Cappella Humana stumbled  that I could again appreciate the show’s striking ingenuity.

Master musician Daniel Delaney backs  the cast commandingly on cello, a pleasure to hear as the only accompaniment  generally  on stage beside Chesney Snow’s excellent mouth-percussion, Bobby McFerrin style. Snow plays the “Little Drummer B-Boi.” Mykal Kilgore is wonderfully appealing as Emmanuel — read that as God. Katie Zaffrann is a Mary concerned with her makeup, Clinton Derricks-Carroll is a bewildered Joseph, and the Magi are Daniella Dalli, Jannie Jones and David Marmanillo.

They know how to raise a joyful noise. A Cappella Humana is a world premiere, and it will probably, as they say, have legs. If its own joyful noise is smoothed out through the ending,  these legs could be strong, indeed.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter.


A Cappella Humana: At Delaware theatre Company, 200 Water St., Wilmington, through Dec. 18. Tickets: $35-$49. Information: 302-594-1100 or


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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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