Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Theater Review: Judas & Me

Location: American Theatre of Actors, 314 West 54th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official NYMF site

Starring: Barbara Walsh, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Nick Blaemire, Doug Kreeger, Leslie Kritzer, Ann Harada, Nikki Snelson

My Review: My second sampling from the 2009 New York Musical Theatre Festival was Judas & Me, and the fact that it took me five days to motivate myself enough to write about it speaks volumes. While not necessarily a “bad” show, it was pretty run-of-the-mill theater, and I suspect it will remain a festival-only performance.

Judas & Me is a biblical satire that primarily focuses on the mother of Judas Iscariot, Rheba, and her blind jealously of their neighbors, Mary and her perfect son Jesus. In the opening moments, a chorus of angels arrives to tell Rheba she will birth the Messiah, then realize they’re at the wrong house when they see she’s already pregnant. But despite the angel Gabriel constantly telling her they made a mistake, the seed has already been planted in Rheba’s mind, and she spends the rest of her life pushing her son Judas to measure up to Jesus, confident that he is capable of greatness, too (think Mama Rose in Israel). Judas is fully aware of his normalcy, and is content to be an irrigation worker and one of Jesus’ disciples. But his mother’s persistent nagging and prodding eventually leads to the inevitable.

What sounds like a great premise—both a funny twist on a familiar story and a cautionary tale about overbearing parenting—is executed rather blandly in Judas & Me. The songs aren’t memorable and the truly laugh-out-loud moments are few. And the story that’s being skewed isn’t skewed enough to really become it’s own. Thinking back on the performance, I wish they had created a sort of “behind the scenes” story that would fit into the Bible story we’re already so familiar with (only the basest of Bible knowledge is required to fully comprehend Judas & Me). A structure similar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead would have served the show better, where we would see everything from the point of view of characters we’re familiar with, but don’t know well, filling in parts of the story that haven’t already been told. What could have been a clever, high-concept satire is instead played as an uninspired spoof.

The saving grace of this mediocre show is the acting talent. Barbara Walsh is Rheba (and was Joanne in the recent Broadway revival of Company), and she carries the production as best as she can with her quick wit and snappy retorts. She personifies everything hilarious and sad about those who can’t see anything other than how much greener things are on the other side. Leslie Kritzer is very funny as Gabriel, the no-nonsense angel who performs a rousing gospel number at the close of the first act. Ann Harada (of Avenue Q fame) is underused as Rheba’s overshadowed eldest child, but she produces some genuine laughs when she is featured. Nick Blaemire and Doug Kreeger, as Judas and Jesus, perform ably in roles that aren’t fully realized beyond the stereotypes of “reluctant loner” and “golden boy.”

It probably doesn’t help the plight of Judas & Me that I saw Fat Camp first, so I inevitably compared the two in my head, and Fat Camp came away the clear winner. I realize that shows in the NYMF are works in progress and not fully-realized productions, so a certain amount of slack cutting is expected. But when the entire point of the festival is to put your best foot forward, with hopes of being picked up by producers for a longer run, Judas & Me should have spent some more time developing a more distinctive concept. As it is now, it immediately fades into the back of your memory, along with every other “good, but not remarkable” show you’ve ever seen.

Bottom Line: While there are definitely worse shows to see, I doubt the goal of Judas & Me is to be seen as “just OK.” It stays very safely in the middle of the road, not taking enough risks to be either truly funny or satirical. With some reworking, it could be less of a moderately amusing Bible retelling, and become either a hilarious sacrilegious farce or a shrewd and subtle commentary about the importance of hearing all sides to a story.

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