Not the Messiah — the premiere reviewed

Not the Messiah — the premiere reviewed June 7, 2007

Looking for reviews of Not the Messiah, the oratorio based on Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) which premiered in Toronto last Friday? Here are a few for your reading pleasure.

First, John Terauds of the Toronto Star:

Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy) felt like a time capsule of the best of 1970s British humour, with the old double-entendres and verbal shtick neatly laid out in sealed glass cases. . . .

On stage with the TSO were conductor Peter Oundjian, his first cousin Idle and four excellent soloists – soprano Shannon Mercer, mezzo Jean Stilwell, Broadway tenor (and Tony-winning Spamalot alumnus) Christopher Sieber and bass-baritone Theodore Baerg – and a core group from the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

They told us about poor Mandy Cohen, the “rather less than immaculate conception” of her bastard son Brian and how Judea mistook him for the Messiah.

Longtime Idle collaborator John Du Prez has fashioned a patchwork quilt of music to fit the 22 numbers divided into five parts – from imitation do-wop and gospel to Gilbert and Sullivan, via Mozart and Handel.

It’s all silly fun, with the five singers (including the tonally challenged Idle) standing in front of the orchestra, each taking turns with solos backed up by the eager choir.

A half-dozen of the numbers brought down the house – the best being Idle’s spot-on parody of Bob Dylan, with acoustic guitar, harmonica and mumbled lyrics.

Besides being able to leave the hall whistling “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” we were treated to equally quaint instrumental program fillers, such as Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations and John Philip Sousa’s “Liberty Bell March.”

It was all well done but missed capturing the spirit of today, which is what Luminato is really about.

Second, Colin Eatock of the Globe and Mail:

It’s lively stuff, to be sure. In true Monty Python fashion, it’s a crazy soup-to-nuts, heavy on the nuts, hodge-podge. There’s bawdy music-hall humour, a touch of Noel Coward cleverness in the lyrics – “freer” is rhymed with “Judea,” and a range of musical styles from gospel to mariachi.

But Mr. Idle was right about the “ripped off” part. Not The Messiah is a retread, a pastiche, and a send-up of a send-up, right up to the final Always Look On the Bright Side of Life, a song directly imported from the movie. A few of the musical novelties suggest Python’s wacky heyday, such as the highland pipers who appear, in full regalia but for no apparent reason, in the number You’re the One.

But some numbers are reminiscent of the musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar: rather bland and a little too earnest to be funny.

And now, Robert Cushman of the National Post:

As well as being a filleted adaptation of the movie, the new piece functions as an homage to, or more frankly, an exploitation of, all things Python. For example: As is well known, Brian was born in a stable to the Non-Virgin Mary while a more momentous birth was taking place just next door. (“Is it A.D. yet?” “It’s about a quarter to.”) And There Were Shepherds — that’s the title of one of the numbers, if an oratorio has numbers. In it, the shepherds sing about how happy they are in their jobs because, simply, “we like sheep.” They don’t, they make it clear, have much time for any other variety of livestock. They are as enhusiastica bout sheep as others have been known to be about Spam. There’s also a strong hint that they enjoy shepherding as much as others might enjoy, say, lumberjacking. This theme becomes more explicit at the other end of the legend when Brian is about to be crucified. One of his fellow prisoners sings A Fair Day’s Work, which is really the imperishable Python anthem about cross-dressing timber cutters as it might have been structured by Gilbert and Sullivan.

I don’t remember exactly how Brian, in The Life of, came to the cross, but I’m sure there was a reason. In Not the Messiah, which is less a narrative than a series of jump-cuts, it just sort of happens. It can’t be traced to his involvement with the People’s Front of Judea; though that, which provided the best scene in the film, also provides the best song here. Entitled What Have the Romans (as in “what have the Romans ever done for us?”), it covers exactly the same satiric ground but does so within the satisfying disciplines of rhyme and meter. Honour the lyricist who can make creative use of the word “aqueduct.” John Du Prez, Idle’s composing collaborator, has written an amusing and eclectic score, and in something called The Final Song reaffirms the talent he showed in Spamalot for writing Andrew Lloyd Webber pastiches that are better than Andrew Lloyd Webber. Of course, it isn’t the final song. It has to give way to a full-scale rendition of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. . . .

But much of the evening’s appeal undoubtedly depends on its sense of lesemajeste. I don’t mean by that irreverence towards the Bible. The show begins with a rather heavy-handed anti-hymn, O God You Are So Big (“and we are garbage in your sight”) and it retains the exhortations of Brian, the reluctant messiah, that his flock should learn to think for themselves. But this element is muted, and the music actually dilutes it.

“All things Python” indeed — that bit about the shepherds and “Is it A.D. yet?” and so on is actually from a deleted scene, which as far as I know is only available on the Criterion DVD version of Life of Brian. (It’s hilarious, BTW.) And if I’m not mistaken, ‘O God You Are So Big’ can be traced to The Meaning of Life (1983).

FWIW, I note that, according to this article in the Toronto Sun, the oratorio will next be performed at the Caramoor festival in New York state July 1. Presumably it will travel elsewhere, too.

If I find any more reviews, I’ll post them here, too.

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