Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
A.D. 16, created by Bekah Brunstetter (book) and Cinco Paul (music, lyrics, and story), is a generous and lighthearted speculation about the teen years of Jesus (Ben Fankhauser) and his new neighbor, Mary Magdalene (Phoenix Best). The authors provide a backstory explaining how Mary came to be "cured of seven demons" and how she and her father Jacob (Alan H. Green) left Magdala to start over in Nazareth.
Paul has molded his music and lyrics in the forms of rhythm and blues, hip-hop, and classic Motown as a clever, and often funny, way of modernizing the ancient setting. Mary is determined to live her own life, unconstrained by cultural restrictions, to the dismay of three rule-following young women (Chani Wereley, Adeline Mitchell, Jade Jones) and the fury of three young scolds from the religious establishment (Jared Loftin, Calvin McCullough, Christian Montgomery).
When Mary meets Jesus and sees him acting unselfishly to help the less fortunate, she's immediately won over–in a romantic sense. "Who thought I would fall for the boy next door?" she asks, with a few fuchsia-tinted visions (clever lighting design by Colin K. Bills) illuminating her fantasies. The three Nazarene Girls think he's weird, spending time with the lepers who have been expelled from the city, but he's a boy who can get away with it. In contrast, they sing, "It's not easy being a girl in Nazareth."
While some of this may sound flippant, the overall effect is inclusive and inspirational. Rather than satirizing religious principles, the authors use anachronism to offer a fresh perspective on stories people think they know.
Brackett has marshaled a richly talented cast of actors with powerful voices, dancing ability (choreographer Katie Spelman goes all out on movement), and overall presence. Best is an ideal Mary, Fankhauser is sweetly hangdog as a Jesus still learning what he's capable of, Green gives a powerful performance as a father who tries to balance his love for his daughter with keeping her out of danger, and Da'Von T. Moody and Kelli Blackwell shine as the most outspoken of the lepers.
Walt Spangler's massive scenic design provides a range of performance space and Emilio Sosa's vivid costumes brighten the stage. Music director Christopher Youstra conducts a rocking eight-member orchestra from the keyboard.
A.D. 16 runs through March 6, 2022, on the mainstage at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney MD. For tickets and information, please call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.
Book by Bekah Brunstetter