J. Todd Anderson’s “Nativity, the Pop Opera”
“Nativity, the Pop Opera” is the BEST Christmas show in town,” according to its creator, J. Todd Anderson. He is a Miami Valley boy who went to Hollywood, became a storyboard artist, now travels all over the world and, between jobs, comes home to Dayton to “keep himself sane.” He sets aside 10 percent of his earnings every year to underwrite his musical with 100 percent of the freewill offerings donated to “give back” to a good cause in Ohio. The good cause this year is A Kid Again (www.akidagain.org), with a mission of “enriching the lives of children with life-threatening illnesses and their families by providing fun-filled group activities and destination events.”
The familiar nativity story has a twist, as it is told from the viewpoint of a quartet of angels: Peace, Hope, Love and Soul. Their special job is to tell the story and also to protect and support the Holy Couple. The audience is in on the angels’ secret, but Mary and Joseph are completely unaware.
The angels’ wings are twelve feet high, precision crafted, die cut and made of gator, a composite material often used in movie sets. The angels require individual handlers to help them get through doorways and navigate backstage. Anderson said he would love to have the wings even taller. The Angels haven’t spoken on the matter.
I was invited to sit in on a rehearsal and it was remarkable! I’ve been to a lot of rehearsals and have never seen one where the actors and musicians were having such a good time. They were intense and focused, too. Anderson, with guitar and a big grin, leaned toward the singers encouragingly, almost mesmerized by the sound of his own music being sung so well. “This is not hard,” he said, and gently led them to try a complicated bit of harmony. They got it.
The three wise men were very serious about their music, and mutually supportive. At the rehearsal break, they introduced themselves: “I’m Tim,” “I’m David,” “I’m Clancy, short for Clarence.” “Last name?” I asked. “Cross” each said in turn. They really are brothers, finally performing together in this production for the first time and enjoying the experience.
With original music inspired by ‘70s rock operas like “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Nativity” is all singing, no spoken dialogue. Because it has a variety of music styles such as a cowboy tap dance and references to old movie musicals, Anderson called it “pop” rather than “rock.”
Lyrics – respectful and explanatory, never preachy – are by J. Todd Anderson, with a lot of help from the gospels of Mark and Luke. There’s appropriate humor, too. “For ninety minutes, I want the audience to believe,” he says emphatically. He quoted from a duet between Gabriel and Joseph: “They said it couldn’t happen. Mary’s pregnant, and I didn’t do it.”
The cast includes several professionally trained singers who feel a dedication to the show and to the spirit of giving that Anderson has established. Other performers are Miami Valley residents with strong musical backgrounds. Auditions are open and well-advertised.
Herod, described by Anderson as a villainous paranoid, is sung by David Bezona, a Cincinnati opera singer. Al Holbrook, Gabriel, is a professional Nashville vocalist. 16-year-old Renecia Joseph, an angel, is a Stivers student and has grown up with the show from age 13. Cast members say they enjoy the change of pace and purpose “Nativity” brings.
The show was created in 1995, but Anderson had been fascinated by the rock opera form since the ‘70s. “I couldn’t believe someone hadn’t picked up on this great device and modernized it,” he said. “But no one had.” That first year, proceeds went to Dayton Children’s Medical Center for a leukemia patient, selected by the hospital staff.
Resuming in 2008, local performances were at the Centerville Community Theatre, Miamisburg Christian Church, Beavercreek Church of the Nazarene and also at the Carnegie Performance Center in Newport, Ky.
If “best” is the one word that describes Anderson’s creation, it will take several words to do justice to this multi-talented man. When he talks about his original music and lyrics he is wildly enthusiastic. When he emphasizes that “Nativity” is always presented as a benefit with 100 percent of audience donations going to help sick children, he is respectful. When he acknowledges he underwrites all the expenses, he is humble. And when he talks about how he is able to make it all happen, he is a whirlwind of action, gestures and stories, with an open acknowledgement of his faith mixed in.
There is a cast of twenty, a band of ten and a full production staff. Mark Cohea, Music Director, made the musical arrangements and plays organ and piano as well. He is as energetic and enthusiastic as Anderson.
“Nativity, the Pop Opera” definitely has a spirit that has affected all the participants. It is the kind of show where the cast finishes rehearsal and leaves, still singing their songs. You will sing too!
“Nativity, the Pop Opera” will be presented Dec. 13-16 at the Beavercreek Church of the Nazarene, 1850 N. Fairfield Rd. in Beavercreek. Performance times: Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. For more information, visit www.nativitythepopopera.org.
Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.