It may just be that producer/director Scott Miller has wasted his greatest talents on highly authentic revivals of other people's shows these last sixteen years. It may be that all that time, he should have been writing musicals about other people just getting wasted.
Johnny Appleweed is full of excellent melody and excellent humor carried through by highly proficient performers, in this latest entry in the St. Louis Political Theatre Festival. That said, the political and religious content itself could easily be cut in half. The most unforgettable character in the show is a Tammy Faye Baker manqué (Kimi Short), and not coincidentally she has the least to say about politics and religion, beyond her own personal lament. The other unforgettable character is President Birch, who rescues us from a long rant with the song "I'm a Real Man." As always, philosophy is best told through character and relationships, over impassioned pleas.
Still, the other characters buzzing around Mr. Appleweed (the lithe and animated John Sparger) are delightful when they're not so obviously lobbying in a political theatre festival. Aaron Allen is excellent as a conflicted Republican operative, and Ember Hyde drops lots of laconic bombshells as the obligatory lesbian performance artist. Alice Kinsella and Brian Claussen are fantastic as Mr. Allen's parents, and later the White House chief of staff and the stand-in for President Bush, the Lesser.
Matthew Korinko, as Jesus, is very sympathetic and intelligent. But Mr. Miller's take on Christ's divinity requires us to rouse our analytical skills to a furious pace, as the whole account races along like a fugitive from justice. Christ, here, seems remarkably noncommittal about his divinity (which has been called satire by some critics). And right before the aaact one curtain, it's said that Paul had no concept of homosexuality. That, however, can be quickly dashed by Romans 1:27. To his credit, however, Mr. Miller's Christ is spot-on regarding the New Testament take on Sodom and Gomorrah.
And yet, to get hung up on Mr. Miller's own politics and religion is to deny one's self the tremendous pleasure of his great original musical comedy. The physical direction sparkles, and the band led by Chris Petersen is agile and compelling. The songs are beautiful, and the jokes are nearly all sure-fire. But Mr. Allen's song at the end could easily be dropped, along with much of Jesus' final five or ten minutes of speechifying.
Most importantly (when Johnny Appleweed sticks to musical comedy), it's quite stupendous.
Through November 4, 2006. Ticket information: www.newlinetheatre.com or (314) 773-6526.