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Posted by: anybody ( )
Date: February 17, 2022 11:12PM

Take it as gospel: “A.D. 16,” the musical making its world premiere at Olney Theatre Center, is a holy rock-and-rolling pleasure. If this affectionately irreverent tale of a teenage Mary Magdalene falling for a dreamy, nerdy Jesus doesn’t convert you to musical theater worship, well, that’s between you and your maker.

The makers of the musical, book writer Bekah Brunstetter and composer-lyricist Cinco Paul, have done us all a timely solid, whipping up a smart, family-friendly confection. With irresistible central performances by Phoenix Best as an indefatigable Mary and Ben Fankhauser as a Jesus so sincere he’d be prom king by acclamation, “A.D. 16” strums guitar strings of broad audience appeal. As to the show’s future in the big time: I’d say with the utmost confidence that it has a prayer.

The production, directed with consummate wit by Stephen Brackett, whose other recent staging success was Michael R. Jackson’s Broadway-bound “A Strange Loop” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, lands as a gratifying coup for Olney and its artistic director, Jason Loewith. Brunstetter and Paul — the latter the co-creator and songwriter of Apple TV’s musical parody “Schmigadoon!” — have been developing the show with Olney’s help since 2019. The result is a testament (dare I say, not a New one) to the dedication of an enterprising regional theater to an inspired project. The engagement is scheduled to end March 6, but one casts a humble eye to heaven for a sign that it might run longer.

With rich applications of polish and cheek, “A.D. 16” can be filed in the musical-comedy section somewhere between “Godspell” and “Mean Girls.” Courtesy of Walt Spangler’s cleverly realized set of stone domiciles carved into a rocky hillside, the musical transports us to Jesus’s hometown via a welcoming committee of young Nazarene women: the wonderful Jade Jones, Adelina Mitchell and Chani Wereley.

“It’s not easy being a girl in Na-na-na-na-na-na Nazareth!” they sing, and soon enough, we see why. The bullying Sanhedrin constables, led by a pricelessly cowardly Jared Loftin, are all about keeping the oppressed in line. Chief among the rudely treated are women of childbearing age and the denizens of a leper colony outside Nazareth’s gates.

Mind you, this is the supremely healthy, singing-and-dancing variety of lepers. And with the suave moves of sort-of-president-of-the-lepers Da’Von T. Moody to guide them, the colony seems like the coolest place in Judea. (Moody, a D.C. actor, at last gets the showy role he deserves.) The downtrodden naturally draw the attention of Fankhauser’s Jesus, a prototypical social justice warrior if there ever was one. Best’s star-struck Mary soon tracks him down there, to enlist in whatever first-century humanitarian start-up Jesus would want to found.

“I’d marry that boy,” Best declares, with an “mmm-mmm-mmm-good” ring to her voice. “I’d marry that boy all day.”

The creative team infuses “A.D. 16” with just enough of A.D. 2022 for a savvy political bridging of the ages, without unctuous sermonizing. You don’t have to have received an A in Bible study, either. The references are to elementary Christian symbols such as frankincense and mangers, and the double-entendres tilt toward innocent jokes: “Jesus Loves Me,” for instance, is the title of moony-eyed Mary’s Act 2 opener. Paul’s vivacious score, inflected with hip-hop, Motown and R&B, and redolent of such musical influences as the Jackson 5, the Beastie Boys and En Vogue, is lyrically sophisticated. And Brunstetter’s dialogue shows an appreciation for sharp, deadpan comedy.

“I have three goats,” one of Mary’s suitors boasts to her father, Jacob, played with both warmth and edginess by Alan H. Green. Expected to elaborate on his attributes, the suitor adds: “I have three goats.”

The operative subtext here is that Mary Magdalene has gotten a raw deal through the millennia — often depicted as a penitent prostitute follower of Jesus. Without making a big deal about it, “A.D. 16” rejects that notion, suggesting it was her outspokenness, not her morals, that forced her to flee her native Magdala; she arrives in Nazareth with a “Possessed by Seven Demons” sign around her neck. (“Maybe you should lose the demons sign,” she’s advised.) In any event, the aptly named Best is herself the best evidence for Mary-as-hero: Her rousingly sung portrayal is the force field that gives “A.D. 16” its magnetic power.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 02/17/2022 11:28PM by anybody.

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