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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Not The Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy) (Carnegie Hall)

By Harry Forbes

I first encountered this wacky – and musically eclectic – satirical oratorio, based on the Monty Python film, “The Life of Brian,” on a BBC radio broadcast in 2009. This performance, relayed from London’s Royal Albert Hall, was later released on DVD.

Much as I enjoyed it over the internet, Monday night’s performance at Carnegie Hall, with The Collegiate Chorale and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (which accompanied its 2007 American premiere) made an even more persuasive case for the piece. It is not just a spoof of “The Messiah” but also a Broadway-style musical in the vein of that other Python-inspired tuner, “Spamalot.”

The story concerns an ordinary young man named Brian Cohen who, at the time of the familiar events in the New Testament, is mistaken for the Messiah by a populace eager to hail him as its savior. Reluctant though he is to accept that role, he finds himself inexorably pulled into it.

Not only did the OSL and the Chorale perform superbly, under the baton of Ted Sperling (who also directed), but a first rate collection of mostly Broadway soloists was assembled for the occasion.

These included Victoria Clark, in resplendent voice as Brian’s mother; Lauren Worsham – recently Magnolia in Sperling’s musically gorgeous “Show Boat” with the New York Philharmonic – as his girlfriend Judith; strong-voiced Marc Kudisch in myriad roles; and sweet-voiced clarion tenor William Ferguson reprising his Albert Hall performance as a wonderfully apt Brian. Idle, who self-deprecatingly describes himself as “baritone-ish” in the program, was funny in his spoken bits, and put across his songs with the engaging panache of a British music hall singer of the first rank, as when he led to cast in “Always Look at the Bright Side of Life.”

The principals all sang with beautiful tone, and just the right sense of parody when required. And, oh yes, there were four bagpipers from the New York Metro Pipe Band who, together with some singing sheep, added a further zany touch to the proceedings.

Idle’s amusing book and lyrics were set to John Du Prez’s music which, at times, was quite beautiful. “When They Grow Up” and “The Final Song” were but two examples of affecting songs that worked outside the satirical framework.

With pastiche songs of every sort – from gospel, Broadway, doo-wop, mariachi, Gilbert & Sullivan, and of course, Handel (“We Love Sheep”) – the 90 minute show moves along at a fast pace with little dialogue, and mostly linking recitative. The Collegiate Chorale and the OSL sang and played with as much fine musicianship as if the piece really were Handel.

There were a few curious walkouts during the first act, but it was difficult to say whether those might have been offended from a sacrilegious perspective (though, unlike its film source, the satire here is more musically and politically targeted), or simply found the Python-esque humor sophomoric. But everyone else seemed to have a rollicking good time, and left the hall in bracingly high spirits.

(Carnegie Hall, 57th St. & 7th Avenue, Dec. 15-16 only; www.collegiatechorale.org)

Photo by Erin Baiano

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Elephant Man (Booth Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Hollywood heartthrob Bradley Cooper proves his stage mettle with a superb performance as the famously deformed Victorian Joseph Merrick, the so-called “Elephant Man,” whose sad story was also the basis for David Lynch’s acclaimed 1980 movie.

In the revival of Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play, Cooper is backed by a strong supporting cast, including Alessandro Nivola as Frederick Treves, the compassionate surgeon who gives Merrick shelter after a lifetime of abuse in a sideshow, and ultimately protection in the London Hospital, and Patricia Clarkson in Carole Shelley’s original role of the actress Mrs. Kendal to whom Treves turns in order to give Merrick the experience of normal companionship.

I did feel that Clarkson, always so marvelous, is somewhat disappointing here. She projects a rather generalized empathy, but for the grand actress she’s supposed to be, rather lacks both the requisite theatricality, and even more surprisingly, the English accent. What’s there is rather half-hearted.

Still, Scott Ellis’ production, which started out in Williamstown in 2012, is stylishly staged, and nearly always engrossing, except perhaps in some of Treves’ long-winded ruminations.

Anthony Heald is impressive in the dual role of Merrick’s manipulative freakshow manager Ross, and later as Bishop How, one of the many pillars of society who come to pay homage to Merrick when he’s all cleaned up in the hospital, each imbuing Merrick with the characteristics he chooses to see, and each believing he’s particularly attuned to his innermost thoughts, all the while showering him with lavish – if not always appropriate -- gifts.

Timothy R. Mackabee’s spare scenic design (including projections of the real Merrick during a lecture by Treves) and Clint Ramos’ costumes neatly evoke the era, cannily lit by Philip S. Rosenberg.

The rest of the supporting cast, including Henry Stram as the head of the hospital and Kathryn Meisle in various roles, is solid.

But it is Cooper’s performance that makes this revival a must-see. Like his predecessors in the role, he eschews makeup or prosthetics but contorts his face and body to the extent that good looking as Cooper plainly is, we can believe he’s the grotesque figure we’ve just seen in the historic photographs. And beyond his physical prowess at transforming himself so impressively, he gives a moving and heartbreaking performance.

(Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through Sunday, February 15.)