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Friday, February 11, 2022

Satirical, Soulful ‘A.D. 16’ Premieres at Olney

The Bible leaves a gap between the time Jesus was born until he reached age 30. Composer and lyricist Cinco Paul (Despicable Me) in collaboration with Bekah Brunstetter took it upon themselves to fill that void and imagine what life in Nazareth would be like at the time Jesus was 16 years old.

It’s a safe bet that over two thousand years ago Jesus wasn’t fine tuning his TikTok performance or hoping for a new Bluetooth speaker or PlayStation 5. He was, according to Paul and Brunstetter, just Jesus—pensive, caring and inspiring. And his teenage neighbor Mary Magdalene who just made her way to Nazareth with her widowed father Jacob was smitten by this son of a carpenter and tried everything in her power to make it a two-way street. She takes “love thy neighbor” to a new level.

The dynamic between the two shape the core storyline of a spanking new musical making its world premiere at the Olney Theatre Mainstage called A.D. 16. Mind you that the actors portraying Jesus and Mary (Ben Fankhauser and Phoenix Best, respectively) can only see 16 in their rear-view mirrors so you will need to rely on your imagination.

Familiar themes from the Bible are presented mainly in a light-hearted satirical manner in both song and dialogue. However, others depict cruelty and punishment and form the tensest moments in the show.  Strict laws, such as a girl must accept a marriage to a boy if the boy’s parent offers him, or girls cannot be outside the house after dark surface in the story. And most critical to the plot, lepers who are quarantined in a squalid colony cannot be allowed back into the town.

But the values that Jesus preaches regarding generosity, humanity and love try to break through the darkest moments. Using satire, Jesus "turns the other cheek" and works on his healing powers, to name a few.

Director Stephen Brackett guides a spirited talented cast and creative technical crew, and in conjunction with a terrific score and lyrics, the production contains all the ingredients of being a crowd pleaser. At times irreverent, rambunctious, soulful and campy, A.D. 16 is entertaining regardless of one’s faith.

Paul’s score dominated by R&B and 90’s hip-hop genres is up to the task allowing the cast to showcase their considerable vocal talents. His lyrics are witty and emotional and work well with Brunstetter’s book.  Music Director Christopher Youstra and his 8-piece orchestra perfectly support the vocals. Katie’s Spelman’s choreography is effective and precise.

..."irreverent, rambunctious, soulful and campy, A.D. 16 is entertaining regardless of one’s faith."

In what might be the most phenomenal set I’ve seen on Olney’s Mainstage, Scenic Designer Walt Spangler and his team erected a stage-wide multi-level, multi-dimensional set on a turntable displaying stone structures of huts and similar dwellings and switching to other venues, such as a leper's colony and a jail. The multiple sets on the turntable are put to good use in a scintillating travel scene as they revolve in a clockwise manner. The set plus the extraordinary period costumes designed by Emilio Sosa and fantastic lighting designed by Colin K. Bills craft the perfect backdrop to the story and its presentation.

Mary, played by Phoenix Best in a sensational performance, noticed her neighbor Jesus and instantly fell for him. Jesus, projecting a calm, soothing understated manner by Ben Fankhauser, was considered an outcast, and a trio of sassy expecting girls from the village—the Nazarene Girls to be precise (Jade Jones, Chani Werely and Adelina Mitchell) -- tried to dissuade Mary from pursuing him. Their big number “That Boy” conveys that message.  For her part, Mary showing a feminist side criticizes the girls for accepting the fact they are merely considered property in a man’s world. The opening rousing group number “It’s Not Easy Being a Girl (in Nazareth)” sets the tone.

As she interacts with Jesus, Mary picks up on Jesus’ way of thinking and tries to emulate that philosophy and his values to impress him with mixed results.

The harsh laws are gleefully enforced by a trio of Sanhedrin Officers played by Calvin McCullough, Jared Loftin and Christian Montgomery. They are the villains of the show who prosecute violators and carry out the punishment.

Ironically, in enforcing the strict provisions contained in Leviticus and other books from the Old Testament, these officers are represented as swishy, effeminate men most likely to garner chuckles from the audience. It should be pointed out that this stereotype is similar to the way gay men were depicted in early 20th century films and theatre.

Though the characters are not explicitly gay, their portrayal was not all that subtle. For instance, one of the men, Nicholas, mentioned that he has a wife but was quick to clarify that she is a woman. In another scene, Mary asks him, “What makes you a man, that you have a sword?”  Their caricatures may elicit some laughs, but I don’t think the creative team should expect a GLAAD Award.

A.D. 16 is marked by stellar performances. As Mary, Phoenix Best exhibits her Broadway (Dear Evan Hansen) and national touring chops. Ms. Best is a star in the making with an outstanding soprano voice. She performs in several group numbers including “Jesus Loves Me” and her moving solo “Better than This.” Ms. Best appears most comfortable in musical moments, but her overall performance shines brightly.

Ben Fankhauser as Jesus and Phoenix Best as Mary
As Jesus, Ben Fankhauser does a fine job of conveying the earnestness and seriousness of the boy. Also possessing strong vocal skills, Mr. Fankauser excels in “You Did it for Yourself” whereby he points out to Mary that her risky effort to take the lepers back to town was more about her than for the benefit of the lepers themselves.

Broadway veteran Alan H. Green is excellent as Mary’s father Jacob. He is a controlling dad in which Mary has difficulty accepting. Sadly, the widower had preferred a son to a daughter and expresses that belief in the soulful song “If She Was a He.” At the end, he admitted his love for her and literally had the scars to prove it. Mr. Green’s acting was stellar throughout the production.

Other notable members of the cast include Kelli Blackwell, Jade Jones, Jared Loftin, Calvin McCoullough, Adelina Mitchell, Christian Montgomery, Da’Von Moody, Chani Wereley and an Ensemble consisting of Ales De Bard, Sylvern Groomes, Jr., RJ Pavel, John Sygar and Kanysha Williams.

Any opening night will produce a hiccup or two. On this night a top of a torch (facsimile) flew into the audience. From my perch it appeared that no one, thankfully, was injured and I can predict with great confidence that it won’t happen again.

A.D. 16 is an entertaining production that is performed by a talented cast.  Credit Artistic Director Jason Loewith and the team at Olney Theatre Center for taking a risk of putting on a brand-new musical amidst a pandemic and other challenges. In my opinion the risks were worthwhile, and I urge folks to enjoy this fine theatrical experience. 

Running time. Two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.

A.D. 16 runs through March 20 (Extended) at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting here.

Photos: Teresa Castracane Photography

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