Black Nativity

- a mixture of Langston Hughes' words, traditional carols, and gospel-genre songs that can be set partly in Africa, or on a slave ship, or in someone's house - is putty in a director's hands. Michael LeLand, who stages and choreographs the energetic current production by Theatre Double in Center City, plays it simple, and it works.

Not only that, it works like no other holiday show I know of on a major stage hereabouts: It's a real telling of the Nativity, a show that actually bows to the biblical story of Christmas, and not the gift-giving, or the money-spending, or any of the stuff that is Christmas-minus-religion.

In fact, Black Nativity is unabashedly religious, and refreshing in that sense. For nine years, until 1994, it was a fixture at Freedom Theatre on North Broad Street, until that institution became money-strapped and stopped producing regularly. There, it changed each year, and it's unlikely that one Black Nativity you see will be exactly like another. Some directors set the first-act Nativity story in Africa, and some set the second-act gospel meeting just about anywhere.

LeLand's sweet production is site-specific: It's at the lovely St. Mary's Chapel on Bainbridge Street near 19th, where the voices of the 13 cast members reverberate in harmony, bouncing without echo off the walls and into the pews. The chapel's interior may be built classically of stone, but it has excellent acoustics, at least for this cast.

LeLand gives us a Black Nativity completely without pretense. The carols are sung traditionally. The modern songs are touching in the way they address God, or invigorating when they break into a welcoming gospel feel.

This rendition has no intermission - it runs about 100 minutes - so it's a bit of a jarring surprise when the cast abruptly transforms from its biblical roles into its current-day gathering of nameless souls who praise the Lord and pass the adoration to one another, in featured songs.

Even though the two parts are not exactly seamless when presented as one, they remain woven by music - often powerfully sung and sometimes without accompaniment from a sole piano off to the side (played by Donald Locklear at Sunday's opening, but also by Carolyn Vance).

LeLand and the cast begin with a rousing "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" - his rich bass voice is a trademark for the production. Mattilyn Rochester, who looks regal at the church podium as the narrator of the Nativity story, is LeLand's equal as a powerhouse in her "O, Holy Night" and "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me." DeAnna Wright, Tanja Dixon, Tiffany Webb, Meryl Lynn Brown, Sam Lewis - they and the others raise a joyful, sincere noise. And check out the rendition of "Scandalize My Name" before you go around bad-mouthing anyone.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Follow him on Twitter at #philastage.