A daffy mix of satirical music, story concept, superb comedic concert performances backed by a mighty chorus and lively orchestral accompaniment graced Carnegie Hall with “Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy)” on December 15 and 16, 2014. The presentation by The Collegiate Chorale with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s follows concerts of the work in other venues, the first at Royal Albert Hall in London in 2009. But this marked the premiere in New York City and featured Eric Idle, Victoria Clark, Marc Kudisch, William Ferguson and Lauren Worsham. It turned out to be unbridled fun mined from the comic oratorio based on the Monty Python film “Life of Brian,” with Ted Sperling conducting and directing.
The cleverly wacky concoction is the work of Eric Idle and John Du Prez (“Spamalot”), riffing on the film and for which Idle amusingly wrote in a program note that he received permission from Pythons without having “to use any of the compromising tapes and blackmail photographs that I have been compiling all these years.”
Idle serves as narrator and “baritone-ish” participant in the oratorio. At one point, resembling Bob Dylan, he strummed a guitar with nutty harmonica intrusions. His main job, apart from delivering some very funny dialogue, was to speed along the story of Brian (William Ferguson, tenor), who reluctantly becomes a Christ-like figure in a parallel story of being worshiped by followers, ultimately arrested and crucified, all in a wicked spoof of religion and followers.
Victoria Clark, mezzo-soprano, evoked Brian’s mother and Lauren Worsham, soprano, Judith, his love. Marc Kudisch lent his powerful presence and bass voice in various guises. At the outset, Idle introduced the cast as the best unemployed Broadway performers. They are all terrific singers, as demonstrated in their delivery of songs in a variety of musical styles, whether as specific characters or collective satirists.
To emphasize the comedy, at one point Lynne Marie Rosenberg as the Sheep Lady hilariously appeared with three large puppet sheep. At another moment a bagpipe contingent members of The New York Metro Pipe Band played while marching down Carnegie Hall’s aisles.
But it was in the musical compositions that the concert reached its high point. For example, with the full-bodied presentations of the numbers “Chaos and Confusion!,” “Wow Woe Woe!” and “Hail to the Shoe,” the backing of the 180-member Collegiate Chorale” soared along with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s powerful accompaniment. A different sort of highlight was a clever choral work conveying sexual orgasm.
You can get the flavor of the venture just by a sampling of the song titles, “We Love Sheep,” “What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?,” “I Want to Be a Girl,” “The Chosen One Has Woken!,” “A Fair Day’s Work,” and of course, the climactic signature favorite at crucifixion time, “Always Look on the Bright Side.”
The extended lark came across as very impressive in the fabled concert hall. (Can you imagine that the landmark was almost torn down some years ago until a campaign rescued it?). The evening consistently sparkled with comic delight from this off-shoot of the mischievous humor that the Pythons once instilled in their fans, who still revel in the nostalgia. Reviewed December 16, 2014.