A funny thing happened to this zany musical on the way to a larger venue: It lost part of its cheeky, irreverent charm. Director Jules Aaron, who helmed the 2003 premiere at the 99-Seat Hudson Theatre, again stages the clever biblical spoof by siblings Brian and Mark Karmelich, collaborators on the book, music, and lyrics. Aaron's remount is enjoyable but feels curiously subdued, seldom scaling the high-camp heights of the original staging.
The Karmelichs' sly conceit recalls the loopy humor of the vintage cartoon series The Flintstones, which filtered the Stone Age through an anachronistic modern lens. The creators impose a 21st century sensibility on the era of Jesus Christ, stirring up the pot with pop-rock music styles from various periods-think Grease by way of Galilee. Hebrew National franks and Starbucks coffee shops are part of the topsy-turvy milieu, and the oppressed citizens are filled with political outrage: "Tax collectors take all our money/The Romans take all our pride/If we don't die from leprosy/We'll probably be crucified." The story revolves around Larry (Joseph Sark), trying to escape the shadow of his water-walking elder brother. The underachieving younger bro falls for Mary Pilate (Kristen Beth Williams), a chick from the wrong side of the tracks. Her father is the tyrannical Roman ruler Pontius (Scott Dreier). Guess who's coming to dinner?
In the absence of star-caliber lead performances, the stellar attraction here is the inspired score, in the adept hands of music director Brian Murphy and his six-member combo. Brian Paul Mendoza's choreography is likewise zesty and witty. As the also-ran sibling, Sark sings impressively but misses the goofy chutzpah needed to spark the ironic humor. Williams' saucy ingénue fares slightly better. An Andrews Sisters-style trio (Andi Gibson, Pamela Holt, Elaine Loh) rocks the house with its scintillating
"Galilee's Finest Men." Fernando Orozco Jr. scores big laughs as the boisterous Italian merchant, Da Baker. Likewise amusing are Jeffrey Landman as Larry's steadfast father, Joseph; David Eldon as a musclebound gladiator; and Christopher Dean Briant as Larry's schlemiel of a sidekick, Barabbas.
Aside from Shon LeBlanc's smart costumes, the visual design works against the material. Tom Buderwitz's set misses the cartoon stylization that's called for, and J. Kent Inasy's lighting often feels too dim for an upbeat farce. The epitome of wrong-headed tinkering is the elimination of the uproariously sardonic number, "Leper in the House." Though this rendition is imperfect, the Karmelichs' divine creation still suggests the potential for a heavenly afterlife.
Presented by and at International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center. 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Feb. 10-Mar. 12. (562) 436-4610.