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The Magdalene

This new musical about Mary Magdalene is well-sung, but does not fulfill its potential. logo
Lindsie VanWinkle and Shad Olsen in The Magdalene
(© Peter Zielenski)
There are two reasons for seeing The Magdalene, at Theatre at St. Clement's, but unfortunately they must be measured against the greater number of reasons why one should not.

Starting with a cheerful outlook, this earnestly revisionist biblical musical is very well-sung. There is also genuine potential to the show's initial concept of basing it on "newly found scrolls" that tell a brand new story about Mary Magdalene. But sadly, that potential is not met.

In this tale, Mary (Lindsie VanWinkle) is not a prostitute, but rather a woman a bit like Joan of Arc who hears voices and has visions. Rebelling against a cruel father and a religion that disrespects women, she yearns for more even though she has little faith in herself that she can change things.

That's where Yeshua (Shad Olsen) comes in, and she and He have a meet cute scene in which she punches him in the nose. She has no idea at this point that he's the Messiah everyone is talking about, but even when she finds out that He's the guy, she is (at first) reluctant to buy in to this cult of personality even though she clearly likes him. And like soon turns to love. And love turns to marriage.

There are no insurmountable problems with the plot, per se, until Yeshua is arrested for his rabble-rousing. At this point, despite all the big singing and the tortured emotional conflicts, the play swiftly falls apart. It turns out the Romans let him go only to re-arrest him literally moments later, and this time they crucify him very quickly, while Mary's story is still going on.

Some of the things that may annoy you during the course of the show: the overacting of the Roman General, lingering anti-Jewish sentiments, and the constant use of reverb when anything mystical is going on.

James Olm's music, however, is somewhat better than the banal lyrics (credited to Olm and his co-bookwriter J.C. Hanley) and there are some numbers with genuinely catchy melodies that are smartly arranged.

The director, Richard Burk, would seem to have chosen singers who act rather than actors who sing, which was probably the right way to go given that the book is heavy-handed. As there is almost no set design by Sean McIntosh, the decision to seat a lot of audience members on the stage makes plenty of sense, as well.

Among the standout singers, VanWinkle as Mary almost sings her way to heaven, and Faith Engen, who plays both a little lamb and a little girl, has a beautiful sound. But all one can do is pray that these and other actors in the show find a better vehicle for their talents soon.

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