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Audiences who have sat through Handel‘s classic too many times will surely appreciate the opportunity to see the New York premiere of Eric Idle‘s comic rejoinder, Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy). Co-written by the former Monty Python member with his Spamalot collaborator John Du Prez, this 2007 oratorio, inspired by the troupe’s classic 1979 movie Life of Brian, is being presented for two performances at Carnegie Hall in a large-scale production featuring the Collegiate Chorale, the Orchestra of St. Lukes and, for good measure, several bagpipe players of the New York Metro Pipe Band. It all makes for deliciously subversive holiday entertainment.
Idle performs in and narrates the piece, accurately billing himself as “Baritone-ish.” The other soloists, described by him as “the funniest talents currently unemployed on Broadway,” are Lauren Worsham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder), Victoria Clark (The Light in the Piazza, Sister Act), Marc Kudisch (Thoroughly Modern Millie, 9 to 5) and opera tenor William Ferguson as Brian.
Performed in two parts, the 90-minute piece begins on a nostalgic note with John Philip Sousa‘s “The Liberty Bell,” which was of course the Python theme song. The ensuing two dozen-plus musical numbers relate the story of Brian, mistaken for the Messiah by the Judeans and ultimately crucified for his trouble. While the oratorio’s storyline roughly parallels its cinematic inspiration, the plotting is decidedly looser, depending largely on musical hijinks and zany lyrics for comedic impact.
“Is it A.D. yet?” one character asks, generating the response, “It’s about a quarter to.”
The score is superbly delivered, with the massive chorus and large orchestra performing magnificently under the direction of Ted Sperling, as well as getting into the antic spirit of things by donning miners’ hats and mariachi costumes. While Handel’s choral music is an obvious inspiration, with such numbers as “We Love Sheep” and “Hail to the Shoe!” explicitly referencing “The Messiah,” the music also draws upon gospel, pop, doo-wop, Broadway and British music hall influences. For his solo number “Individuals,” Idle amusingly slings a guitar and harmonica while delivering a spot-on Bob Dylan impression.
Although Idle is a bit wobbly in the vocal department, making his lyrics sometimes indecipherable, the other soloists more than compensate. Ferguson’s beautiful vocals are well showcased in such numbers as “I Want to Change the World,” while the Broadway pros infuse their songs with wonderfully comic, off-kilter deliveries.
From its trio of singing puppet sheep to its sly referencing of the troupe’s classic “The Lumberjack Song” to its exuberant audience sing-along on the film’s “Always Look on the Bright Side,” Not the Messiah proves itself a minor but nonetheless welcome addition to the Python legacy.
Cast: Eric Idle, Lauren Worsham, Victoria Clark, William Ferguson, Marc Kudisch, Lynne Marie Rosenberg, The Collegiate Chorale, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, New York Metro Pipe Band
Librettists/composers: Eric Idle, John Du Prez
Director/conductor: Ted Sperling
Lighting designer: Frances Aronson
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Presented by The Collegiate Chorale
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