The New York Musical Theatre Festival
What, you may ask, is the connection between easy listening and the most infamous of Jesus’s Apostles, who sold out the Son of God for 30 pieces of silver? That’s an excellent question, and one that neither librettist-lyricist Beguelin nor composer Sklar readily answers. But soupy piano spins on songs that sound like they should be more robust and on-the-sleeve emotionalism are the defining characteristics of this piercingly fluffy, listless look at two key New Testament figures and the women who loved them.
The most important of those women being their mothers: the Virgin Mary herself (Jennifer Laura Thompson) and the more obscure Rheba (Barbara Walsh). The point of the show, which has been indistinctly directed by Jeremy Dobrish and nominally choreographed by Dan Knechtges, seems to be that you can tell immediately from meeting these women why the boys’ lives turned out so differently. Mary dotes on Jesus (the mop-headed Doug Kreeger), gently encouraging him in all his pursuits, but Rheba insists that Judas (Nick Blaemire) live up to her vision of the world, as if she’s a First Century Madame Rose and he’s her Louise. In fairness, Rheba has her reasons for thinking Judas might be destined for greatness - the angels visited her a few minutes before they did Mary lo those 33 years ago - but is that a good excuse for living vicariously through her not-so-special son?
That question might have more pull if Judas weren’t presented throughout as the Neville Longbottom to Jesus’s Harry Potter, if Rheba herself were written as more than as a flaming, jealous opportunist, or if the score itself cut deeper than pre-commercial spots in a 1970s TV variety show. Musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell use their scores to comment on the contemporary relevance of the Jesus-Judas relationship. Beguelin and Sklar use theirs to traipse between papery, hymn-inspired comic numbers, shallow character writing and, of course, the obligatory Act I gospel finale, all of which only lack sequins and foil-curtain backdrops for the complete telethon effect. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with making marshmallow frivolity of the foundational basis for several major religions, but shouldn’t they offer at least some compensatory insight in exchange?
Most of the actors reflect the material’s one-dimensionality, giving indecisive performances that torpedo any comedy that may actually be present in the writing. Walsh’s take on Rheba as simply a desperate keep-up-with-the-Joneses sophisticate does not explain this woman’s dastardly drive. She does make something nice of Rheba’s one moment of reflection, “Mary for a Minute,” in which she ponders her brief brush with history, but it’s not enough for us to understand someone this apparently important. If Blaemire makes Judas perhaps a shade dorkier than is absolutely necessary, his work is heartfelt within the character’s relatively limited boundaries. Snelson has her moments, but as much of her character early on is eye candy and much of it later is nondescript look-what-Jesus-did-for-me plot catalyst, there’s not much she can do; the usually wonderful Ann Harada, trapped in the completely extraneous role of Judas’s sister, is even more at sea. Thompson is annoyingly cloying as Mary and Kreeger unconvincingly detached as Jesus - for the foremost figures of one of the world’s chief religious movements, they’re pretty boring.
The only person who isn’t to some degree is Leslie Kritzer. This estimable actress, who’s proven a comic force in roles ranging from Fanny Brice to Patti LuPone to the Valley Girl leader of a sororal Greek chorus, plays the archangel Gabriel to a degree one suspects Beguelin and Sklar didn’t even intend. She creates an entire mythos around Gabriel’s ability to directly or covertly influence others, smiling through her guile and joking through gentle nudges that prod history toward its inevitable destiny, and she does it with manners ranging from ditzy blonde and cunning coquette to stalwart Holy Servant. You never know what her next tactic will be or what vocal or facial expressions she’ll employ to execute it - her takes during the otherwise unremarkable opening number, “The Annunciation,” are priceless, and her singing spectacular in the derivative rave-up “Tell Your Friends” - but you always look forward to finding out.
Judas & Me would make a stronger impression if all of its roles were written and cast with Kritzer-like talents in mind. She may be an unapologetic throwback to the days when personality was all, but when there’s so little verve or originality in a show’s writing, that’s the kind of actor it can never have too many of. One suspects it’s not entirely accidental that Kritzer plays here a character sent from God Himself, but one can’t help but wish she’d descend into something other than The Gospel According to Lawrence Welk.
Judas & Me