This review of The Unusual Tale Of Mary & Joseph's Baby at SoHo Playhouse was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
The Unusual Tale Of Mary & Joseph's Baby
Playwright: Chris Cragin-Day
Composer & Lyricist: Don Chaffer
Director: Amelia Peterson
15 Vandam Street
New York, New York 10013
The Unusual Tale Of Mary & Joseph's Baby is the unsurpassed breakout hit of the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. It is very clever, extremely entertaining, and absolutely delightful! By far, it is the best show I saw at the Fringe Festival this year. It tells the story of Mary & Joseph from their betrothment to the time they left for Egypt to escape Herod's jealous wrath in a fresh and funny way. We get to see the traditional tale from the perspective of the couple who had to come to terms with the virgin birth and its aftermath. This smart, intelligent musical has a bright future ahead of it. The show is ready for an extended Off-Broadway run that should be followed by a successful national tour and years of recognition being performed in every Church and Synagogue in the world. It is a new look at an old story featuring an outstanding non-traditional cast of four, which at first shocked me. Having now seen the musical, I cannot imagine anyone else having played the parts. There is also an amazing puppet of the Angel, Messenger of God, wings and all, that is carried by three cast members whenever the Angel appears with a message for either Mary or Joseph. The use of this puppet was innovative and refreshing! I can't imagine the show without it!
In this musical, Joseph is a builder (stone mason - a middle-class working Joe) often harassed by Roman guards who steal his tools when he is working on the roads. Mary is an idealistic spitfire who would like Joseph to fight back but he realizes "the guards are Romans" and he "is only a Jew." Mary wants deliverance from the oppression of the Romans and wonders why God would have freed the Jews living as slaves under the Pharaoh only to have them submit to "the yoke of slavery" under the Romans. Where is the Messiah God promised to send? Mary is engaged to Joseph but doesn't want to settle down and "give up thinking things could be different." The Angel, Messenger of God, visits Mary and tells her she will soon be pregnant with God's child ("a Divine Conception" - The Angel points to Elizabeth's late life pregnancy as proof of God's miraculous powers). Joseph doesn't take it well. When Mary first tells Joseph she has not been unfaithful yet is impregnated with God's child, Joseph says, "Our God doesn't do that! He's not Zeus!" Still, Joseph loves Mary and doesn't want her stoned to death so when The Angel, Messenger of God, visits him in a dream and tells him to marry Mary, he does (Benjamin, Joseph's fictitious cousin, can't understand how forgiving he is and reminds him the Roman Empire "is not a land of Mercy, it's a land of Justice"). They marry and go to Bethlehem (city of Joseph's birth) for the official census. Unable to stay with Joseph's relatives due to the circumstances surrounding Mary's condition ("we can't have that scandal around here"), they accept an offer to stay in a stable in return for work.
Baby Jesus is born and Joseph and Mary start wondering what they are supposed to do next. As Mary says, "Why does God have to look so Human? He was supposed to look like Justice. Instead, he looks like Love. It makes me wonder how Deliverance can come from such a fragile face. He's supposed to look like Lightning. Instead, he looks like me!" A visitor from Persia arrives bearing gifts claiming to have found Baby Jesus by following the North Star. He tells them Herod (King of the Jews in Judea) believes their child is the Messiah foretold in Jewish scripture and will be coming to pay his respects. The Angel once again visits Joseph in a dream warning him that Herod intends to kill his child (because he fears Jesus may be the true shepherd of God's people and a threat to his rule) and that he needs to take his family to Egypt. (In the dream, Joseph tells the Angel he has his own plans and that the Angel is "just a Messenger" while he "is the Man!") Joseph doesn't know what to believe anymore. Mary convinces him everything is as it should be and if he starts questioning the authority and legitimacy of the Angel, it really brings into question their whole belief in Jesus being God's child. The result? Mary gets the Donkey and they leave for Egypt.
Michael Castillejos is a talented and charismatic actor who is perfectly cast as Joseph, a caring, down-to-earth man of faith who loves Mary with all his heart. He is not without doubt and certainly questions what his role is in all this. When asked by Naphtali, the Shepherd, if he is the boy's father, he responds, "I'm the father of a boy." Just hilarious! The only directorial decision I question is that when Joseph gets mad, he twice lashes out physically hitting things in a typically macho manner. I wonder whether that anger could have been depicted in a more creative way that didn't play into the stereotype of men using violence to lessen their rage (hitting physical objects is just a small step away from attacking the person who made you that angry in the first place). Ava McCoy is amazing in the role of Mary successfully portraying her as a tender and devoted wife with a revolutionary spirit who asks God to use her as a vehicle to deliver the Jews from Roman oppression. What is the mother of the Messiah to do? There is no rule book to follow and how many times can an Angel visit you in your sleep to give you advice. I found Mary's conversations with Elizabeth prior to her telling Joseph of the pregnancy to be particularly well-written. Katherine George (Elizabeth) and Andrew Nielson (Benjamin) both take on additional roles in this production. Their contribution to the success of the show cannot be understated. Their talent in successfully portraying a variety of colorful characters was an essential part of the story. Katherine George was a pleasure to watch on stage. Andrew Nielson was exuberant and versatile. There was also a highly professional three-man live band on stage that performed before and during the show.
Did I mention this original folk musical is a comedy with well-composed songs and poignant lyrics? You think I jest? Not so. Just wait until you hear "Birthing Checklist For Sheep And/Or Fathers" sung by Naphtali to Joseph as he anxiously awaits the birth of Mary's baby. There are so many other gems in this musical that I cannot wait to get the CD, which I have read is in the works. The Unusual Tale Of Mary & Joseph's Baby is a hit! See it wherever and whenever you can! This is a musical everyone will enjoy. It doesn't matter if you are a Christian, a Jew, a Humanist or an Atheist. Do not let the subject matter dissuade you from coming. This musical is a must see! As the cast says in the last line of the play, "Don't Be Afraid!" "Don't You Be Afraid!"
This is the World Premiere of The Unusual Tale Of Mary & Joseph's Baby. It is produced by Firebone Theatre, a company dedicated to examining the space "where human meets divine." Their stories primarily focus on the juxtaposition between Fire (immortality) and Bone (mortality). Tickets for this show cost $18.00 and can be purchased at www.FringeNYC.com