Not the Messiah was superb (albeit with minor overtones of shtick). But what else to expect from Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle, and John Du Prez, one of the composers of Spamalot and composer of the soundtrack for Python's swan song film, The Meaning of Life. This was truly an evening of whimsy on a grand, grand scale, with an excellent full orchestra playing wonderful arrangements, a chorus of one hundred-or-so voices, four outstanding soloists, and of course Eric Idle (who at this stage of his long career possesses whimsy-imprinted DNA).
The story follows the life of a man named Brian, born a few doors down from the manger where you-know-who had his nativity. He grows up to be an idealistic youth who joins a revolutionary group, the People's Front of Judea, to protest Roman rule. After a series of misadventures, Brian is mistaken for "the Messiah," and nothing will dissuade his followers -- unwanted by him -- from misinterpreting everything he says or does, no matter how mundane, as affirming his godhood. This musical saga runs though an ever-surprising succession of genres, from Baroque to doo-wop to mariachi, and beyond. Perhaps I should mention the bagpipes?—and I shouldn't forget to include Eric Idle assuming the persona of Bob Dylan for a guitar and harmonica solo (with, of course, sleek iconic wrap-around shades).
Diehard Python aficionados might quibble with the absence of one-or-the-other of their favorite set pieces from the original 1979 film, but the main points all get musical interpretations. [If this oratorio were to be completely film-faithful, it would rival Wagner in its length, but I, for one, would have been up for it!] Hey, Handel's Messiah runs about two hours and twenty minutes. Idle and De Prez's Not runs about an hour each act with a twenty minute intermission, so it's on par, temporally.
In the film, during a clandestine meeting of the People's Front, a heated discussion revolves around the question posed by the revolutionary group's leader: "What have the Romans ever done for us?" The musical rendition of this sequence is my favorite number. It is an hilarious musical rendering of that satiric scene, in which one member of the group after another gives unexpectedly reasonable answers to that question: the roads, the baths, education -- even peace. Having no retort to offer, the flustered leader merely asks the question again and again. As a musical number it works perfectly.
Under the direction of Ted Sperling, who was recently appointed as the artistic director of The Collegiate Chorale, both the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the Chorale were in fine form and deftly handled all of the musical genres Mr. Idle and Mr. Du Prez threw at them. Perhaps it was the breezy whoopla of the evening, perhaps not, but one way or another The Collegiate Chorale never sounded better.
The four soloists were indeed a class ensemble. Brian was sung by the enormously personable operatic tenor William Ferguson, who recently joined the roster of the Metropolitan Opera. His voice is glorious and his comic timing spot-on. Award-winning Broadway veteran Victoria Clark is delicious as the somewhat licentious Mandy, mother of Brian, with her fine lyrical style ably lending itself to honed moments of the ridiculous. Accomplished in both musical theater and opera, Lauren Worsham portrays the winsome Judith, Brian's girlfriend. She is a lovely sparkling soprano as well as being an accomplished high (and low) comedienne. With many a Broadway credit, Mark Kudisch sings various characters both Judean and Roman. With both flair and panache, his booming basso complements and completes the ensemble. It would appear that these four soloists were having an absolutely great time, performing free from the staid constraints and audience expectations demanded in more conventional roles.
As for Eric Idle: well, we are speaking of a living legend. As the narrator of (and singing participant in) the evening, he is at once glib, droll, and ridiculous -- and he holds the stage like a champion.
I departed Carnegie Hall exhilarated. What fine music and performances by all! Not the Messiah's no-holds-barred sophisticated musical burlesque banquet left me more than a bit breathless. - Jay Reisberg
Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, and bon vivant at large.