Olney Theater Center has a lot to do this season. Even with the challenge of the omicron variant, their recent successful and acclaimed series of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Hedwig and the Angry Thumb prove that the company does not intend to give much ground to the pandemic. Their latest offer 16 AD– a world premiere musical imagining a teenage romance between Mary Magdalene and Jesus of Nazareth – promises to continue this trend.
16 AD features an impressive creative and production team, led by director Stephen Brackett, fresh off his recent gig leading Woolly Mammoth’s stellar Broadway-bound musical A strange loop. With music and lyrics by screenwriter Cinco Paul and book by writer and TV producer Bekah Brunstetter, it’s hard to imagine how this musical could possibly not be a crowd pleaser.
16 AD opens in Nazareth with new arrival Mary Magdalene (Phoenix Best) and her father Jacob (Alan H. Green). Mary, having upset the local clique of Nazarene girls – played by powerhouse singers Adelina Mitchell, Jade Jones and Chani Wereley – also finds herself breaking local Sanhedrin officers who uphold morality (Jared Loftin, Calvin McCullough and Christian Montgomery ). This draws the neighbor’s son, Jesus (Ben Fankhauser), to his defense. Mary is immediately taken with the unusual young man and this sets off the chain of events that make up the musical’s runtime.
If you know any of the actors named above, you will know that each of them is capable of directing a musical on their own. Best is absolutely stunning as Mary Magdalene. Part Minnie Riperton and part Aaliyah, her voice is a perfect match for this R&B and Motown-inspired ensemble. Another highlight is Alan H. Green as his father, Jacob. Father-daughter relationships can be both strained and tender, and Green showcases his silky-smooth voice and acting skills to communicate those nuances. Jared Loftin provides comic relief with his deeply wounded and deeply suppressed Sanhedrin officer Nicholas. While it’s clear this is the story of Mary Magdalene, Ben Fankhauser also delivers mousy credibility with this particular version of this man bun Jesus production. Trust me when I say there are no weak links in this cast: they’re reason enough to check this one out, regardless of your interest in the source material.
Alright, so the music itself is impressive. As I mentioned, it’s (mostly) inspired by R&B and Motown. I’m only speaking for those of us living in the 90s, but if you enjoyed the TLC/SWV/Mary J. Blige/Brandy era of R&B, you’ll absolutely appreciate the vibe of this musical. It doesn’t quite reach the dizzying heights of, say, the wait to expire soundtrack, but it still offers a heavy dose of nostalgia for fans of the genre. “That Boy,” featuring the Nazarene Girls and introducing itself with a lo-fi beat, was a favorite of mine. The audience was collectively thrilled when Jade Jones (as Jessica, a Nazarene girl) burst into a rap during this number. “Make It Stick,” sung by Loftin, McCullough, and Montgomery’s Sanhedrin officers, is clearly inspired by the Beastie Boys and thoroughly enjoyable in every way. At the top of Act II, the humorous “Jesus Loves Me” brings the Motown sound to the fore.
Every element of the production design comes together so well in this musical. Costume designer Emilio Sosa uses both texture and color to bring first-century Nazareth to life. Scenic designer Walt Spangler offers a beautifully imagined and visually appealing set of intricate turntables. The design elements are in sync, which is important for a show with such an unusual concept. Considering the show includes so many tonal shifts as Mary Magdalene’s inner world comes alive in several fantastical sequences, the unity between the creative elements is an impressive feat.
Since this show deals with religious themes in a somewhat irreverent way, I believe there are certain subsets of people who may find the material offensive. Above all, the musical does not attempt to provide answers to theological questions. It remains firmly rooted in natural actions, as opposed to supernatural actions. However, I think that the very existence of this production goes against the claims of a culture that is continually secularizing. If most people didn’t have some cultural knowledge of Jesus and his parables, the jokes wouldn’t make much sense, proof that the Judeo-Christian narrative, at least, is still ubiquitous. The musical separates the moral and ethical principles of Jesus from the person of Jesus and portrays these principles as being very much from the culture of that time.
I have some criticisms, not on the religious aspects of the show, but on the overall message. He comes across as confused, especially in Act II. The show gives so much weight to the Jesus and Mary Magdalene gimmick that it doesn’t really flesh out many of the threads it introduces in a satisfying way. I wonder if nervousness about offending religious sensitivities has made the authors hesitant to commit to any particular ethic beyond a generic “be kind” type of message. I believe pushing it further one way or another will narrow the potential audience, but a big part of the appeal of religion is the promise of a consistent ethical framework, at least internally. You have to answer that with a little more morally confident premise, in my opinion. That said, it’s by no means a bad show! It’s immensely entertaining. The story needs a bit more clarity and focus on the emotional impact before it’s ready to move forward I think, but the team behind it is strong and the overall cast and production of Olney are absolutely worth seeing.
16 AD is a promising new musical with broad appeal. It’s light-hearted and funny enough to charm skeptics, and with its fun R&B-inspired score, it’s sure to appeal to fans of traditional musicals and newcomers alike. You won’t want to miss this rare opportunity to see all these talented artists in one production, supported by a top-notch creative team.
Duration: 2h20 including 15 minutes intermission.
16 AD plays through March 6, 2022 on the main stage at the Olney Theater Center—2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, MD. Regular performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 8:00 p.m.; and a Wednesday matinee at 2 p.m. on February 9, 23 and March 2. Tickets ($42 to $85) can be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or in line. Discounts are available for groups, seniors, military, and students.
The program for 16 AD is online here.
There will be a performance interpreted by signs Thursday March 3, 2022, at 8 p.m. and a audio-described performance for the blind and visually impaired on Wednesday February 23, 2022 at 8:00 p.m. Audience members wishing to use these services should contact Julie Via, Client Services Manager (firstname.lastname@example.org) to confirm.
covid Security: Masks and proof of COVID vaccination are required for all customers. Exemptions can be made for those who are not vaccinated, such as children under 5, people with certain medical conditions preventing vaccination, or those with narrow religious beliefs. These customers must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test performed within 48 hours or a rapid antigen test performed within six hours of the show. Visit OlneyTheatre.org/vax for more information.
Book before Bekah Brunstetter
Music and lyrics by Fifth Paul
Story by Fifth Paul
Director Stephen Bracket
Choreographer Katie Spelman
music director Christophe Youstra
Orchestrations/Music Supervisor Doug Besterman
Stage designer: Walt Spangler • Costume designer Emilio Sosa • lighting designer Colin K. Bills • sound designer Matt Rowe • wig designer Anne Nesmith • Playwright Alissa Klusky • Production stage manager Karen Currie
Married: Best Phoenix
Diana: Kelli Blackwell
Jesus: Ben Fankhauser
Jacob: Alan H.Green
Jessica: jade jones
Nicholas: Jared Loftin
Mattias: Calvin McCullough
Ruth: Adelina Mitchell
Bartimaeus: Christian Montgomery
Simeon: Da’Von T. Moody
ester: Chani Wereley
Together: Alex De Bard, Sylvern Groomes Jr., RJ Pavel, John Sygar, Kanysha Williams
Swing: James Mernin, Tiffany Lyn Royster, Chris Urquiaga, Candice Shedd-Thompson