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Friday, 15 April 2011 12:39

A.D. or ADD?

Written by Bob Wilcox
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It has singing and dancing and multiple characters and multiple scenes, but calling A.D. The Musical a musical doesn't make it a musical. It's more like a church pageant, and as Judy Newmark pointed out in her very generous review in the Post-Dispatch, it probably would be more comfortable, and raise fewer misplaced expectations, in a church rather than in the Ivory Theatre, where it currently resides through Sunday afternoon, April 17.

Harlan Rector, the creator of A.D. The Musical, retired to his hometown of St. Louis after a career in the advertising and entertainment industries. He was, he says, ""inspired to write" the piece out of what must be deep religious convictions. So he gives us scenes from the life of Jesus, recounted in song by those who encountered him.

Rector frames these scenes within a story in which God sends the Old Testament prophet Isaiah back to earth to produce a musical. This musical is to give people "an inspirational message of God's love in an entertaining and enlightening way," according to the program.

Why Isaiah? Did he have a show-biz background that the Bible missed? I dunno. But God may have had his doubts about his choice, because he sent along a recently deceased young man as Isaiah's assistant producer. The young man was from Manhattan, so he must know something about theatre, right? Unfortunately, it was Manhattan, Kansas. (God's skill in choosing producers may explain something about the general state of his world today.)

God did enlist a long-time heavenly resident, an Englishman named William, to write the script. But William's playwriting skills appear to have atrophied during his 400 years away from the Globe. He simply takes individuals from Jesus' life, plops them down in front of us and has them sing a song about their encounter with Jesus. Oh, he has other people around usually, and they may enter into a little dramatic action at first. But as soon as the song starts, the dramatic action stops. Nor is there any dramatic connection or build between these fragments.

And the music they sing is generic, usually merely serviceable, with the occasional amusing anachronistic reference. You probably won't leave the theatre humming any tunes.

The framing story does build a little dramatic tension with the old boy-meets-girl plot. When Isaiah and his young assistant Morty get to earth, they discover that not only are they on a street in the right Manhattan for show biz but they are surrounded by out-of-work actors eager to audition for their show. (The tentative quality of some of the performances in A.D. The Musical may be a deliberate choice by the actors and director to explain why these people are on the street and not in a Broadway show.) Morty proceeds to fall in love with the young woman cast as Mary, and she with him. But how is he to explain to her that he's dead and, after opening night, he'll be leaving her and going back to heaven? The dilemma does create a few tense scenes.

In a brilliant stroke of casting by director Mike Hesser, Joneal Joplin plays Isaiah at his avuncular best. People can forget that Joplin has solid musical training and a number of roles in musicals in his resume, and he puts those skills to good use here.

Hesser also struck gold with the lovely Caitlin Mickey as the young woman who plays Mary. Mickey can sing, she can act, she can dance. Ryan Glossmeyer plays opposite her as Morty. Zak Stephaniac's performance as the angel Gabriel, who obviously has theatrical experience beyond playing trumpet in the pit band, suggests that instead of just giving God's message to Isaiah, he's the one who should be putting this show together. And Allegra Merriwether, as the Adultress, and Tim Callahan, as Judas (if I'm reading the program correctly), provide two of the more moving vignettes.

Jim Kimker, who sometimes wanders vaguely about in full wig-and-beard as Jesus, choreographed the numbers for those who can dance and those who are working on it. Music director Ed Callahan's small band sounds good and keeps things moving. Jeff Rector, Jerry Rector, Red Line Productions, Stained Glass Theatre, and Abacus Group created very polished videos that are projected on the upstage screen. But Jim Demerit's set, a few earth-colored structures, looks like cardboard. The lighting by Joseph Errante and John Jauss isolates soloists as needed. Cece Driscoll's costumes cover both today and long ago. They appear to have taken extremely good care of their clothes in biblical times.

A religious pageant can move the faithful in its proper setting. That setting is not a theatre.

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