by Cory Conley · December 21, 2014
Cast photo | Erin Baiano
As you might have guessed, Eric Idle and John Du Prez's Not The Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy) is lightly inspired by Handel's Christmas oratorio Messiah, which is performed by many choirs and orchestras around this time of year. Having premiered in Toronto in 2007, this modest but delightful composition made its New York debut last week at Carnegie Hall. And while it played for only two nights, one certainly hopes it will be back next year, and for many to come.
Like Handel's work, Not the Messiah is based on a holy scripture of sorts, though instead of the King James Bible, the source text is Monty Python's Life of Brian, which hilariously chronicled the plight of an ordinary Jewish boy named Brian Cohen who's mistaken for the savior of the world. The oratorio is largely faithful to the movie's plot, but the sensibility is decidedly looser and zanier, relying on wordplay and sight gags for much of the humor. ("We Love Sheep" and "Hail to the Shoe!" are two song titles.) Du Prez, you'll recall, is the composer behind "Spamalot," and he uses a similarly versatile toolkit here, spanning styles from light opera to jazz to pop.
Idle (a founding member of Python) serves as narrator, and also plays a few of his characters from the movie. He's a pleasant and reassuring presence, if not a natural singer, and his impression of Bob Dylan (in the hilariously indecipherable song "Individuals") rivals that of Jimmy Fallon. The other members of the cast--- Victoria Clark, Marc Kudish, Lauren Worsham, and William Ferguson--- are splendid, especially Ferguson, a virtuosic young tenor who plays Brian with exuberance. The evening is conducted by Ted Sperling, a veteran of Broadway, and backed by the Collegiate Chorale.
While not directly about Christmas, Not the Messiah (and Life of Brian itself) inspires lots of thoughts about the fables, myths, and traditions that get wrapped up into our collective understanding of both religion and theater. Brian was enormously controversial when it opened in cinemas, but today the Python treatment seems downright gentle when compared to such dark satires as Book of Mormon. As his story ends, condemned to a crucifix and left for dead, Brian is cheered up by a neighboring victim with the rousing finale "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." This clever and warm-hearted Messiah may not have the staying power of Handel, but its goofy spirit is more than likely to send you into the new year with an honest smile.