OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic
“When Herod saw that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was filled with rage. Sending orders, he put to death all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, according to the time he had learned from the Magi.” – Matthew 2:16
Don Chaffer’s “The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby” is an interesting retelling of the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus from Gabriel’s “Annunciation” to the “Flight into Egypt” to escape Herod’s attempt to find and murder the child born a ruler who will be “the shepherd of God’s people Israel.” The new musical – still set in the time of Herod – sports a Joseph who builds for the Romans and has to decide what to do with his fiancé Mary who claims to be pregnant with God’s child. Mary here, as in the Biblical story, is a devout young woman who awaits God’s deliverance from the oppression of the Romans and their puppet king Herod.
Don Chaffer’s and Chris Cragin Day’s musical comes to the stage with great promise. His retelling is fresh and, in most cases, brimming with humor. If only the cast members had stronger voices and were able to develop their characters more deeply giving them a freshness and a new depth of spirit. Michael Castillejos (Joseph), Ava McCoy (Mary), Katherine George (Elizabeth and others), and Andrew Nielson (Benjamin (and others) often seen adrift in clearly articulating the themes of “The Unusual Tale.” Perhaps it would have been better to have a contemporary setting to correspond to the contemporary costumes. And why is Joseph in a contemporary builder’s costume and the Roman soldiers in period costumes? And the lengthy scenes with the large puppet informing Joseph and Mary of God’s will are unnecessary. Again, an announcement over the loudspeaker at work that only Joseph can hear might have worked better.
Director Amelia Peterson should be giving her actors a firmer hand and move the entire show at a much quicker pace. Was the show perhaps under rehearsed? This reviewer does know the company’s tech rehearsal was cancelled and rescheduled for 6:00 a.m. the day of their first performance. Still, stronger direction is needed and the Music Director should let the actors know that they need to deliver their songs with more strength and conviction. Perhaps the director and creators should be thinking more of an SNL skit or even – if they watched a few re-runs – something like a “Honeymooners.” Andrew Nielson’s portrayal of Benjamin and his other characters could not be more in the character of Art Carney.
In its present writing, the musical seems not have found a clear purpose or a clear direction for its future. If the musical is a riff on the story of the birth of Jesus, hoping to reach out to a new generation of theatre audience members or is it intended to reach out to existing faith communities to embolden faith and commitment in an already believing audience? The character of Benjamin (played with an exuberant playfulness by Andrew Nielson) – and the other roles played by the same actor – would indicate the former. But the characters of Joseph and Mary and Elizabeth fall clearly into the latter category of appealing to the faithful. This is an important decision the musical’s creators have to make. If the show’s purpose is to proselytize, then it belongs in a religious context. Music, lyrics, and book all contribute to this current confusion.
All of that said, “The Unusual Tale” is a charming love story of a young couple faced with important decisions in a world of judgement and conditional love and worth a visit.
THE UNUSUAL TALE OF MARY AND JOSEPH’S BABY
“The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph's Baby” is presented by The New York International Fringe Festival and Firebone Theatre at The SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street (between 6th Avenue and Varick Street).
Remaining performances of “The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph's Baby” take place at on the following schedule: Friday August 19th at 5:00 p.m.; Monday August 22nd at 7:30 p.m.; Friday August 26th at 7:00 p.m.; and Saturday August 27th at 12:15 p.m. Tickets are $18.00. The running time is 1 hours and 30 minutes. For more information about the show and the cast and creative team, please visit http://www.firebonetheatre.com/. For more information about the 20th Annual New York Fringe Festival visit www.FringeNYC.org.