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'Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy)' - Merry Oratorio for the Holiday (or Any) Season

Eric Idle, Victoria Clark, William Ferguson, Lauren Worsham, and Marc Kudisch in Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy)
(©Erin Baiano)

The holiday season in New York got a lot merrier earlier this week with the Collegiate Chorale’s two-night presentation of Eric Idle and John Du Prez’s oratorio Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy) at Carnegie Hall.

Based on the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian, this nearly sung-through piece provokes glee on multiple levesl, starting with its story (pretty much known to everyone). It’s all about a guy who was born in the next stall over from Jesus, and who finds himself taken as the Messiah. Of course, he’s just a regular Joe.

Musically, Not the Messiah draws on just about every imaginable style to joyous effect. As an oratorio, there are classical stretches, but the show has doo-wop, Latin, gospel, and operetta-like numbers. Impressively, the diversity of the score never jars, but rather it coheres as part of one larger joke. One reason for the unity that audiences sensed during the two performances at Carnegie Hall was the expert work of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Chorale, both of which, thanks to Ted Sperling’s fine direction and conducting, traversed the wide-ranging sounds with finesse.

The lyrics for Not the Messiah, too, contain a merry assortment of jokes. Burning bushes flee from the White House in one number. In another, the writers manage to reference Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park” and “The Rain in Spain” from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady.

At the center of the performances were four talented singers, who reveled in both the music’s serious side and its more whimsical nature. From the world of opera, William Ferguson demonstrated that his lustrous voice could be ably and beautifully put to use for pop sounds, and he seemed to delight in playing the hapless Brian.

From Broadway, the performances boasted Victoria Clark, who, brought a comic earthiness to her portrayal of Brian’s mother and sounded sublime as her voice soared along with melodies. Lauren Worsham’s soprano was equally at ease with the high trills---and low comedy---of the piece, and Marc Kudisch, a reliable bass (base?) comic in shows ranging from 9 to 5 to Thoroughly Modern Millie, proved particularly funny as a couple of authority figures Brian encounters on his journeys.

The fifth principal for the show was “Baritone-ish” Idle, who, unremarkably, provoked gales of laughter as the show’s narrator, and in a host of secondary roles. In the presence of the more serious voices assembled for the show he has written with Du Prez, Idle also acquitted himself admirably in his vocals. And once the show had ended on Tuesday evening, theatergoers could warm themselves against a chilly, rainy night by the glow that had been cast by Not the Messiah.

---- Andy Propst

For more information about the Collegiate Chorale, visit .

2009 performance of Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy) offered at London’s Royal Albert Hall was recorded and can be ordered as a disc-on-demand from Amazon.com. This reviewer hopes that it will be complemented by a release of the American version in the very near future.

A Look at Twelve Vocalists' CDs

As 2014 winds down, there are a lot of new recordings to talk about, both cast recordings and individual vocalists.  Releases from the former category are being covered in a column on BroadwayDirect.com this week, and for the latter, here are a dozen that I’ve quite enjoyed, starting with six from female vocalists:

Celia Berk - You Can’t Rush Spring (Gramercy Nightingale Music Co.)

Cabaret performer Berk draws from roughly eighty or ninety years of songwriting for this shimmering recording.  The varied array of tunes on the album come from well-known songwriters like Stephen Sondheim; John Kander and Fred Ebb; and Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner, but the titles, “Sand,” “It’s the Strangest Thing,” and “You’re All the World to Me,” respectively, are not the ones you normally find on discs like this.  But Berk’s selection of rarely-heard tunes isn’t all that makes “Spring” special.  There’s also Berk’s gossamer delivery, which brings to mind classic band singers, and Alex Rybeck’s astute arrangements, which both support her vocals and gracefully illuminate the music.  I’ve found myself returning to this one frequently.

Ann Hampton Callaway - From Sassy to Divine: The Sarah Vaughan Project (Shanachie) 

This recording of a concert Callaway offered at Dizzy’s Jazz Club in Manhattan contains a delectable array of songs, from her überly seductive “Whatever Lola Wants” (from Damn Yankees) to the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me,” in which her vocals are filled with a palpable (and heartbreaking) ache.  When she turns to “Mean to Me,” she shows a fun, teasing side.  Particularly notable, I think, is her rendition of “Send in the Clowns.” For this well-known tune, Callaway’s voice takes on an ethereal quality and her vocals are beautifully supported by an elegant, classic jazz arrangement (co-created by Vaughan’s frequent collaborator Bill Mays), which surprisingly and effectively reference “Moonlight Sonata” and enhance the song’s already significant gravitas.

Kimberly Faye Greenberg - Fabulous Fanny: The Songs and Stories of Fanny Brice (CDBaby)

On this superb disc, you’ll find that the Ziegfeld Follies star who’s so closely associated with Streisand comes to life anew thanks to Greenberg’s fine work.  She’s actually played Brice in a trio of shows, and this album is based on her one-woman show dedicated to the singing comedienne.  What’s great about Fabulous Fanny is that it resurrects, tunefully and hysterically, so many of the songs that Brice performed.  Yes, there are the familiar ones like “Second-Hand Rose,” but there are also ones like “Sadie Salome” and “I Was a Floradora Baby.”  The disc does pay homage to the incarnation of Brice that most of the world knows:  the one from Funny Girl and there are a couple numbers from that show, and then, as a bonus, there are a pair of numbers written for the musical Ghostlight, which also features Brice as a character.

Isabel Rose - Trouble in Paradise (Jubilee Recordings)

This singer, who has been working in an jazz mode for a while, breaks into a bigger and more pop vernacular with this new 12-track release that takes its title from the hit Bye Bye Birdie song, which has been given an infectious funkadelic arrangement by Eric Helmkemp.  Beyond this selection from the realm of musical theater, Rose’s choices are eclectic.  There’s “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” (which was a hit for both Bessie Smith and Nina Simone), the Captain and Tennille’s 70s classic, "Love Will Keep Us Together," and Nat King Cole’s “More and More of Your Amor.”  Rose renders these diverse tunes and others (The Supremes’ “Reflections”) with a sultry feline-esque quality that’s positively seductive.

The Shapiro Sisters - Live Out Loud: Live at 54 BELOW (Broadway Records)

Real-life sisters Abigail and Milly Shapiro have been racking up impressive stage credits of late (in shows like Matilda and Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas), and you’ll find out why as you listen to this live recording of a show they offered at 54 BELOW:  they’re engaging and smart performers.  Their repertoire features some of the “princess” numbers you might imagine (“Part of Your World” from Little Mermaid, for instance), but then, there are tunes like “The Pretty Little Dolly” (a Yuletide tune that works for Halloween too).  They were joined at the concert by a performer who herself started on the Great White Way early in life, the original Annie, Andrea McArdle.  She’s on hand for charming renditions of “Together” (from Gypsy) and “Anything You Can Do” (from Annie Get Your Gun). 

Barbra Streisand - Partners (Columbia)

Streisand turns to some old favorites like “The Way We Were” and “Evergreen,” among others, on Partners (Columbia).  For each track, she’s paired with a stellar male vocalist, such as Billy Joel (“New York State of Mind”), Stevie Wonder (“People”), Andrea Boccelli (“I Can Still See Your Face”), and Josh Groban (“Somewhere”).  It’s one of her best albums in recent memory and worth looking into.  Saying anything more would really be overkill for this singing legend.

And after “Ladies first,” six albums from male singers:

David Campbell - Sings John Bucchino (Social Family Records (Australia) Pty Ltd / Luckiest Records Pty Ltd)

Australian actor-singer Campbell (who frequently graced cabaret stages here in New York and was seen in Sondheim’s Saturday Night off-Broadway) and American songwriter John Bucchino combine forces for this smoothly mellow album that brings together tunes that Bucchino has written for the stage and screen as well as standalone songs, such as “Grateful” and “Feels Like Home,” that have become part of many singers’ repertoires.  Bucchino is the sole musician on the disc (at the piano and his work as always is impeccable) and his work perfectly melds Campbell’s vocals, which can be both winningly delicate and passionately robust.   Highlights here include the bluesy “What You Need” and the jazzier “Puddle of Love.”

John Michael Dias - Write This Way (CDBaby)

It’s unsurprising that this performer, who has played Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys on Broadway and on tour, has a terrific falsetto, and he displays it amply and ably on this album where the Gershwins brush up against Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann, and Cole Porter meets Billy Joel (in a swell medley of “Take Me Back to Manhattan” and “New York State of Mind.”)  What is surprising are Dias’ delicious lower and slightly smoky notes, which are particularly heard when he delivers Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” as a lovely duet with Jamie Beth Barton.  One other standout on the album is Sondheim’s “Being Alive” that’s part acoustic, part vocalized instrumental, and thoroughly moving.  It’s a marvelously fresh take on this often-performed tune.

Michael Law - Easy to Love (PICCD)

Law, director of the Piccadilly Dance Orchestra in England, takes a turn as a solo artist on this album that’s intoxicating from start to finish. Law lends his supple, dulcet tones to a bevy of tunes by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Noel Coward, among others, and he delivers such well-known tunes as Porter’s “De-Lovely” and “I Won’t Dance” (Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein and Otto Harbach) with immecable phrasing and with gentle piano accompaniment that he’s also playing.  The album was recorded live at The Pheasantry in London, and there’s a decided intimacy to the album, where, among many, many highlights, you will find a deeply felt rendition of Berlin’s “Change Partners” and a grandly conceived medley of “After You - Who?” and “Night and Day.”  Hunt this one out.

Jesse Luttrell - Jesse Luttrell (Fred Barton Music)

Luttrell lends his rich baritone to a sextet of tunes on this EP that also features some swank orchestrations from Fred Barton.   Each of the selections are pretty sweet, but if I had to pick faves, I’d say that the standouts are “Make Someone Happy” (from Do Re Mi), which has a smart combination of brashness and delicacy; and “Where’s That Rainbow?” (from Rodgers and Hart’s Peggy-Ann), which has actually sounds as if it might have just come to the 21st century from the 1920s.  

Leslie Odom Jr. - Leslie Odom Jr. (CDBaby)

Odom, who made his Broadway debut in Leap of Faith, garnered some great reviews, and landed on NBC’s Smash, has now released his first solo album and it’s a jazzy, acoustic joy.  From the world of musical theater, he offers up exceptionally fresh versions of standards like "Look for the Silver Lining" (heard in both the musicals Zip and Sally) "Joey, Joey, Joey" (from The Most Happy Fella), and "Love Look Away" (from Flower Drum Song).  The nine-track recording also features a couple of duets.  One, a driving “I Know That You Know,” features some exceptional piano work from Elew (Eric Lewis), and another, the gently moving “Song for the Asking,” pairs Odom with the silvery voiced Nicolette Robinson.

Nick Ziobro - A Lot of Livin’ to Do (Titanium Entertainment)

This recording, produced by none other than Michael Feinstein, proves to be an ideal showcase for this classic crooner who’s also got a contemporary vibe.  Ziobro’s at home with both Burt Bacharach and Hal David (a heartfelt “This Guy’s in Love With You”), Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields (a swinging, effervescent “I Won’t Dance”), and Sondheim (“Anyone Can Whistle”).  Ziobro delivers this last number with remarkable simplicity, enhancing the song’s lyrical ache, and it’s just one reason why the album is a sparkling debut from a performer I’m betting we’ll be hearing more from for many years to come.

'A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)' - A Fascinating Theatrical Jigsaw Puzzle

Stephen Rea and Lloyd Hutchinson in A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)
(©Matthew Murphy)

One part Greek myth and one part television procedural Sam Shepard’s newest play A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) asks audiences to dive into the equivalent of a theatrical jigsaw puzzle that’s been semi-assembled. Given that most (if not all theatergoers) will walk into the Pershing Square Signature Center, where the show opened last night, knowing the Oedipus myth, a clear sense of what the puzzle should ultimately depict is basically understood. How Shepard’s varied pieces (that span centuries and cultures) fit together is the challenge, and for those theatergoers who are willing to wrestle with Shepard’s enigmatic script, the show consistently fascinates.

Certain portions of Particle center on Sophocles’ tragedy as it’s basically remembered. A soothsayer predicts that a king will be murdered by his child. The monarch attempts to forestall this eventuality after his wife gives birth by abandoning the child in the wilderness, assuming it will die. Of course, the infant is rescued, and when the he reaches adulthood, the prophecies, including the one about the child marrying the mother, are fulfilled.

Other portions of the play center on a drug lord who, along with two of his thugs, has been run down and killed in the desert in Southern California, and on the ways in which a local cop and a forensics investigator who’s been brought in to help solve the case go about determining what happened on a barren stretch of road.

The hallucinatory trick of Shepard’s play is that the two plot lines, which are loosely telling the same tale, warp in and out of one another. The conceit of the show seems to be that when the actors speak with English/Irish accents (the show features a company from both sides of the Atlantic and premiered in Ireland), audiences are watching events that are taking place in ancient Greece. When the actors affect a Southwestern twang, well, the procedural is unfolding.

But, the accents slide, and Lorna Marie Mugan’s contemporary costumes (that nod toward a Grecian aesthetic periodically) for the double and triple cast company only change slightly. Further, Shepard blurs the action almost from the outset when it seems that Oedipus’ father Laius is receiving the message about his fate from a soothsayer. In fact, it’s Lawrence (the drug lord) who has visited Uncle Del (as in Delphi) who predicts the future by rolling bones and reading entrails. Immediately following this, the actor playing Lawrence, Aidan Redmond, moves into a scene with Brid Brennan. Now he’s playing Laius and she’s playing Jocasta and we’ve moved back thousands of years.

Ultimately what the show seems to be exploring - and interpretations about exactly what Shepard’s getting at will, most likely, tantalize theatergoers and academics for years to come - is how this myth continues to haunt us and also how desperately people feel the need to ascribe meaning to events in the world around them. As an example of this, during the present day sequences, wheelchair-bound Otto (Stephen Rea, who also played Oedipus) becomes fixated on the murders in the desert, but a direct or clear line between Otto and Lawrence is never drawn. So while there are ties between this crime and the events in the Oedipus portion of the play, they are not exactly parallel. Depending on theatergoers’ taste for puzzles, such aspects of Particle will either fascinate or annoy.

All theatergoers will pretty much be able to agree on two things. The first is that Shepard’s language and colloquial poetry has never been richer. Throughout, the dialogue has both lyricism and a rough-hewn edge that seems like it would be at home in the playwright’s seminal works like Buried Child or Curse of the Starving Class.

Similarly, audiences should also be able to concur on the sharpness of director Nancy Meckler’s production, which unfolds in a white-tiled abattoir-like environment (from scenic designer Frank Conway) and is underscored with some terrifically atmospheric music for cello and slide by Neil Martin (who, tucked in an alcove of the set, performs the score with Scott Livingston).

Meckler’s elicited a host of savory performances from the company. Rea in the Oedipus/Otto roles is by turns passionately arrogant and curiously, and slightly dimly, inquisitive. Brennan brings spitfire intensity to her portrayal of Jocasta while a kind of wearied sweetness informs her rendering of Jocelyn. Redmond’s turns as Lawrence/Laius/Langos (yes, there’s a third patriarch) all have a genuine regality, and the performer brings subtle nuances to the three different roles.

Matthew Rauch and Jason Kolotouros deliver sturdy performances, respectively, as the forensics expert and the local police officer. Lloyd Hutchinson, who plays Uncle Del, the blind Greek seer Tiresias, a homeless guy labeled “Maniac of the Outskirts,” and a nameless traveler offers a quartet of immaculately detailed, wacky performances. And Judith Roddy does yeoman’s work as she takes on the roles of Oedipus’ daughter Antigone and Otto and Jocelyn’s child Annalee.

Midway through the play, Uncle Del says “Why they keep coming to me is a mystery, tell the truth. In droves sometimes, they come. Lines. Limping. Begging on their hands and knees for the truth. As though it were the rarest thing on earth.” Oddly, it’s a line that, altered ever-so-slightly, could be taken as an admonition about A Particle of Dread overall. Substitute the word “meaning” for “truth.” Look for it in this wonderful tease of a play, but as you do, don’t make it paramount. Enjoy the sense that oftentimes it’s elusive.

---- Andy Propst

A Particle of Dread plays at Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.signaturetheatre.org.

'Allegro' - A Heartwarming Musical

Claybourne Elder, Randy Redd, Elizabeth A. Davis, Malcolm Gets in Allegro
(©Matthew Murphy)

For anyone who is encountering Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Allegro for the first time through the production that opened last night at Classic Stage Company, finding out that the show was considered a clunker in its day and has since been considered problematic might be a bit shocked. That’s because director John Doyle’s careful revisions and excellent staging make this 1947 tuner seem like a long-lost gem. It’s a joy start to finish.

In its day, Allegro was considered too “experimental.” Hammerstein imagined a chorus - of the Greek variety - that narrated the tale of a man’s life from birth through middle age. Beyond that, it offered up a bitter pill of a message: professional and financial success does not always equate with happiness. Times have changed and in Doyle’s carefully considered and beautifully staged production, the show just seems like a kind of musical Our Town.

The sense of Allegro as being a cousin to Thornton Wilder’s classic certain stems from the visuals for this staging. Doyle has served as the show’s scenic designer, and the action unfolds on basically a bare stage. He provides just a couple of benches, one antique kitchen chair, the sort with a carved back, and an upright piano (that can serve as a sofa and even the front seat of a car). At the back of the stage is the indication of a white clapboard-sided house. It’s stark, but when Jane Cox’s lighting hits the stage, the space can feel as inviting as a country home’s kitchen. Cox also knows how to make the space feel more ominous as the bigger issues of the show come to the fore and Doyle and she have collaborated to create some wonderful shadow effects against that back wall.

These visuals (along with Ann Hould-Ward’s carefully chosen period costumes that are primarily in earthtones) marvelously support Hammerstein’s story about Joe Taylor, Jr. (Claybourne Elder), who must grapple with how he loses sight of what’s important once he has left the small town that he called home to pursue a career as a big shot doctor in a big city.

Theatergoers get to know Joe from birth and Elder’s terrific in the musical’s earliest moments, gently indicating an infant’s wide-eyed wonder at the new world he’s entered. And, when Joe takes his first steps, it’s rough not to let out an audible “Aw” as the company, in their Greek Chorus mode, sing “One foot, other foot,” as a repeated chant.

As Joe grows up, he takes a shine to Jenny (Elizabeth A. Davis), and he eventually marries this childhood sweetheart, who’s father runs a local coal and lumber business. She wants Joe to go into her dad’s company, but he follows in his father’s footsteps and becomes a doctor, entering into that elder man’s modest practice. It’s not enough for Jenny, and at her urging, Joe accepts a job with a much larger practice in a much larger city, where he discovers that he’s not so much tending to the sick as playing nursemaid to the rich and famous.

Doyle’s production uses the conceit that he developed working in the U.K. on shoestring budgets and has the actors, in addition to serving as the chorus, serve as the musicians. It works marvelously for Allegro in particular because, after they have taken to the stage with their instruments (strings-only to start), the show has a decided down-home feel. Brass and reeds eventually become part of Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s smart orchestrations, but that isn’t until Joe’s reached adulthood, when the Jazz Age has begun and he’s moved away from his rural roots.

The company handles the dual assignment of the show with finesse. Rodgers’ melodies---some as pretty as his most famous tunes and others a little edgier---sound terrific as the company plays. There are also a bevy of affecting performances. Beyond Elder’s sweetly moving turn as Joe and Davis’ work as the pert never entirely dislikable Jenny, there’s Malcolm Gets’ engagingly warm portrayal of Joe’s soft-spoken and good-intentioned dad and Jessica Tyler Wright’s gently fussbudget-y performance as Joe’s mom. Alma Cuervo brings decided gravitas to her portrayal of Joe’s grandmother and then, amuses as she plays a society dame Joe has to minister to, while Ed Brinker makes Jenny’s father an oily operator of the first order.

Clocking in at a breezy ninety minutes, Allegro has more emotional heft than many of the longer shows currently running on Broadway, and it certainly has a heart that charms through and through, making this once disregarded Rodgers and Hammerstein property gleam almost as brightly as any of their better known works.

----- Andy Propst

Allegro plays at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: classicstage.org.

'By the Water' - Affecting and Effective Family Drama

Quincy Dunn-Baker and Deirdre O’Connell in By the Water
(©Joan Marcus)

In Sharyn Rothstein’s new play, By the Water, which Manhattan Theatre Club opened last night at City Center Stage II, Hurricane Sandy has not only ripped the front wall off a waterfront home in Staten Island where Marty and Mary Murphy (Vyto Ruginis and Deirdre O’Connell) have raised their family, but it has also pulled their skeletons fully out of the closets. And, as they work to rebuild after the devastating storm, they also must endeavor to heal old wounds.

Rothstein packs a lot into her 90-minute play. Beyond the actual physical damage to the house that needs repair, there are long festering resentments between adult brothers Sal (Quincy Dunn-Baker) and Brian (Tom Pelphrey) over a perceived betrayal. Further, patriarch Marty has to cope with the fact that his reputation has been severely undermined by unscrupulous business practices that brought the IRS down on him and forced him to close the three grocery stores that he owned.

As the play progresses, Rothstein reveals that the Murphy’s problems extend beyond the familial. Brian, who’s just been released from prison, and an ex, the recently divorced Emily (Cassie Beck), maneuver through rekindling their romance even as they work to put their troubled past behind them. Marty and Mary, too, find themselves scrambling to salvage a long-standing friendship with Emily’s parents, Philip (Ethan Phillips) and Andrea (Charlotte Maier) as disagreements flare over whether or not to accept a government buyout of their properties.

Rothstein has created a pungent and poignant tale and it’s marvelously observed. My theatergoing companion, who taught grade school in an area not far from where the play is set, commented after the show that he knew parents like the Marty and Mary and watched brothers like Sal and Brian take diverging paths into adulthood. (Unlike Brian who’s found a recovery job cooking at an Olive Garden, Sal has moved on from his childhood home into a high-paying job in Manhattan.)

Further Rothstein’s dialogue crackles with comedy (a joke about alternate side parking takes the audience by surprise and then produces a roar) and with deep emotion, particularly during a scene in which Marty and Sal finally reconcile over their old conflicts.

Directed with care by Hal Brooks, the production boasts one of the most uniformly excellent ensemble casts of recent memory. O’Connell embraces Mary’s soft-spoken nature, while also carefully revealing Mary’s long simmering resentments. Dunn-Baker never overplays Sal’s smoothness. Pelphrey brings a sensitive spikiness to his turn as Brian. Ruginis’ turn has a gruffness and hauteur that’s simultaneously unappealing and pitiable. Maier’s rendering of Andrea’s good-natured aggression is pitch-perfect as is Philips’ work as her seemingly milquetoast husband. And as their daughter and Brian’s love interest, Beck’s work has a charming earthiness.

It all adds up to an evening of family drama that may sound as if it were mere made-for-television fodder, but in actuality is much more.

----- Andy Propst

By the Water plays at City Center Stage II (131 West 55th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.manhattantheatreclub.com/.