NOT THE MESSIAH (HE’S A VERY NAUGHTY BOY)

notmessiah

Book and lyrics by Eric Idle

Music by John Du Prez

Conducted and directed by Ted Sperling

After successfully reinventing Monty Python and The Holy Grail as a Broadway musical (2005’s SPAMALOT), Eric Idle, Britain’s godfather of silliness, is at it again. This time it’s the Python gang’s second, more controversial feature The Life of Brian that provides the source material, and the genre being subverted is the holiday concert event. Thus NOT THE MESSIAH takes on a second meaning (no Handel here). Flanked by “the finest talent currently unemployed on Broadway” (Victoria Clark, William Ferguson, Mark Kudish, and Lauren Worsham) and backed by the Collegiate Chorale and Orchestra of Saint Luke’s, Idle has fashioned a buoyant retelling of the Brian saga that will delight the uninitiated as well as seasoned Python devotees. Ordinary guy Josh Cohen is, indeed, not the savior whose arrival is prophesied in the Old Testament. He simply happens to enter the world in the “wrong place at the wrong time”. Josh’s single mother lives in the house next door to the manger where Jesus is born, and a   group of misguided wise men arrive to bless the wrong baby. Thus begins a series of not -quite-Biblical misadventures. As a young man, Brian falls in love with the revolutionary Judith Iscariot. Mixing with a crowd of anti-Roman activists, Brian finds himself guilty by association.  Running from the authorities, he attempts to avoid detection by posing as one of the crackpot speechmakers in the town square. Much to his own astonishment, a band of disciples takes his blathering seriously and soon Brianites all over Nazareth start proclaiming his divinity. It’s all a bit much for Brian, who has never sought fame – and even less so martyrdom. Composer John Du Prez animates Idle’s ingenious lyrics with a rich array of spot-on pastiches. Musical icons as far-ranging as Mozart, Gilbert and Sullivan, Andrew Lloyd Weber and even Bob Dylan all become the target of affectionate satire. In keeping with the Python aesthetic, the cast and chorale, under Ted Sperling’s ebullient baton, never wink at the audience. Staying in character, they deliver the material with the same commitment as a classical oratorio or Broadway score. There is a limit, given the concert format, to what can be achieved visually. The few sight gags that do occur are choice, but a full-on musical comedy treatment would allow for more pictorial panache. The upside, of course, is that the short-term commitment of a limited engagement allows for a confluence of talent that might not be possible otherwise. It’s well worth the tradeoff. An evening spent with Idle and company is guaranteed to have even the most holiday-hardened New Yorkers remembering to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

NOT THE MESSIAH ran for a limited engagement at Carnegie Hall on December 16 & 18.  Soundtrack is available here: http://www.amazon.com/Not-Messiah-Eric-Idle/dp/B003DF44SI. For upcoming tour dates, check Eric Idle’s website: http://ericidle.com

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I SEE YOU

iseeyou19_huntercanning

Written by Kate Robin
Directed by Jim Simpson

With all due respect to The Flea’s publicity department, the expression “rom com” – found on the show’s website and press release – doesn’t do justice to this luminous new two-hander. Although it does center on a chance encounter that grows into an affair, I SEE YOU has little else in common with the frothy tone and love-conquers-all idealism that typify romantic comedies. What Playwright Kate Robin and director Jim Simpson are pursuing here is a more mutable, ambiguous definition of love.

Nina (Danielle Slavick) and Jesse (Stephen Barker Turner) meet while supervising their respective children at a ball pond. Talkative Nina starts prattling on about her macro-pessimistic view of the world (“look at what’s happening out there. Civilization is totally breaking down.”). Not wishing to appear rude, Jesse offers a few laconic responses. He can’t come close to matching Nina’s gift for gab, but what he does say reveals volumes about his stale marriage and thwarted ambitions. Nina, for all her loquacity, at first shares almost nothing about her personal life. Their budding friendship deepens when Jesse’s daughter is rushed to an Intensive Care Unit (I.C.U.), with a scary case of shellfish poisoning. As Jesse frets in the waiting room, his wife -apparently googling furiously by the child’s bedside – is conspicuously absent. Nina comforts the distraught dad, and in this vulnerable moment they begin, inevitably, to fall in love. What do two thinking, conscientious people do now? Is it better to hold back, and chance spending their lives ruing a missed opportunity? Or should they give in to their impulses, and risk putting their marriages in harm’s way? The search for answers proves knottier than they could have imagined.

The script, like many two-handers is soft in the middle. Jesse and Nina carry on their small talk about big issues a few beats too long before moving to next stage of courtship. And Nina’s Jeremiads sometimes make her sound like a mouthpiece for the author’s opinions. Once the story heats up again, though, it goes to unexpected, often lyrical places. The chemistry between the two leads is believable and affecting, and both actors mine the subtext in imaginative ways. Simpson, aided by an ingenious design team, creates a series of pictures that sensitively encapsulate the characters’ thirst for beauty in a mundane world. Scenes of silhouettes limned by candlelight during a blackout and coruscating patterns of video art projected on twirling bodies stand out in vivid contrast to the flat illumination of hospitals and playpens.

There are no pat conclusions here, and yet despite its many somber notes I SEE YOU is by no means a downer. In Kate Robin’s world, love may not have the power to surmount life’s daunting obstacles, or to save the human species from willful self-annihilation. But, for those lucky enough to find it, it may make our brief stay on earth more bearable.

I SEE YOU continues through December 18 at the Flea Theater 41 White Street, New York, New York. Website http://www.theflea.org. Telephone (212) 226-0051.