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The longest and most entertaining nativity story

by Lenise Willis

Throughout my life I’ve sampled a variety of churches: Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian. Each church had their very own Christmas tradition: the hanging of the greens, the cantata, and usually a sweet children’s play about the birth of Christ.

And though all were special, nothing beats the nativity story put on by Triad Stage’s Open Heart Community Fellowship, set in the mountains of North Carolina.

It was quite surprising to encounter such a loving and open church community on a stage. In fact, I’d rather love to be a member of the fictitious church after its opening-night performance of the Preston Lane and Laurelyn Dossett original, Beautiful Star: An Appalachian Nativity.

Preston Lane, in his playbill notes, remarked that the church in the play was the church he, “would like to stumble into on a winter’s evening. A spirit filled place, where everyone, wounded somehow, can be healed. And where everyone is accepted, believer or not, into a family.” And I have to agree.

The play begins with a loving church that is going to put on a Christmas play”” the nativity story””for its congregation. Set in the Appalachian Mountains, the church is down-to-earth, welcoming and”” well””very country.

The cast well reflected Lane’s vision of the church. Each actor wasn’t just attention grabbing; they exuded love and warmth that swept me into the play, and into the congregation. Most notable was Carroll “Chip” Johnson who performed as Rev. Roy Ledbetter. Some may recognize him from his equally commanding performance in Triad Stage’s Common Enemy.

Johnson’s booming, but welcoming voice and down-home presence immediately sets the stage for a happy-go-lucky church with simple roots and a simple philosophy: to love.

Cinny Stickland, who plays the Reverend’s wife, also did a phenomenal job of creating the same loving aura that I remember from my old bible-study teacher, who to this day might be one of the most wonderful and loving women I’ve ever met.

One of the biggest, and most pleasant surprises of the play is that is actually starts from the beginning. Not with Mary or Joseph, or even with Adam and Eve, but from the very, very beginning, with God and Lucifer. The play takes the audience through the falling of Satan, the creation of the world, the Great Flood, the miracle child of Abraham and Sarah, the sacrifice of Isaac, a cold night with a shepherd, and, of course, the story of Mary, Joseph and their eventual birth of Christ.

Not only does the play include a wonderful selection of biblical tales, but each were complemented by beautiful songs written by Laurelyn Dossett, and performed by an on-stage bluegrass band: a banjo, guitar, bass, mandolin and fiddle. It was like watching a church service, a play and a jam session all at once.

Lane called the play a “blending of Bible stories, medieval plays and contemporary Appalachia.”

The Beautiful Star band was comprised of David Louis Goldenberg, Jason Hughes, Emily Damrel and Faye Petree, who served as both the fiddle player and a remarkable lead singer, mixing the twang of bluegrass with gospel.

Even those who aren’t religious, I think, would enjoy the warm, toe-tapping music and the hints of comedy that add to the show.

The set, designed by Robin Vest, is amazing, too, especially as one watches the earth being created. The wooden framework above the stage pulls the audience into a church sanctuary, and then immediately resembles Noah’s boat when the right context is applied.

The costumes, designed by Deborah Bell, added another rich layer to the production. Her puppets for Noah’s ark are beautiful, and yet also allow the actors to add some comic relief. The snake sock puppet used by Satan to trick Eve is so simple, it’s genius. In fact, watching Satan trick Eve with a puppet may have been my favorite part of the show.

All in all, the play was an incredibly refreshing new holiday tale that I think everyone should see, not just to get in the spirit, but to laugh, smile and jam a little, too. !

LENISE WILLIS, a graduate from UNC Chapel Hill’s journalism school, has experience in acting and ballet, and has been covering live performances since 2010.

WANNA go?

Triad Stage’s Beautiful Star runs now through December 24 at The Pyrle Theatre, 232 S. Elm St., Greensboro. Tickets are $10-$50 depending on date and seating. For tickets or more information call 272-0160 or visit triadstage.org.

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