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Eric Bernat and Robin Carrigan in Jesus and Mandy
Jesus and Mandy

Jesus and Mandy is a delightfully original new comedy by Eric Bernat and Robin Carrigan that puts a new spin on the age-old question, "What would Jesus do?" Here, Jesus (played by Bernat) has the job of going around the globe helping souls to get to the afterlife, but it's a task that he no longer enjoys; somewhere along the way, he's gotten burned out.

Enter Mandy (played by Carrigan), a newly deceased young girl who spent her entire life in a hospital room. She's been dead and resuscitated twice before, earning her the moniker "Miracle Mandy." Now that she's dead for good, she feels more alive than ever. Abetted by her imaginary friends Ivy (Heather Culton), Ned (Eric Hoisington), and Beastro (Michele O. Medlin), she sets out to give God's only Son a makeover as only a "funky girl ghost" can.

Bernat is hilarious, mining the comic potential of Jesus's predicament as he makes phone calls to Heaven, asking, "Is my Dad around?" Carrigan is not quite at her co-star's level but is still fun to watch. All three supporting actors are terrific, especially Hoisington, who has a grin that won't quit and so much bubbly energy that the silly bits of stage business he performs actually work.

The show, set during "the bubblegum '70s," features lots of day-glo colors and groovy slang. The choreography (also by Carrigan and Bernat) is filled with energy and humor, and is well executed by the cast. Directed by Chuck Blasius, Jesus and Mandy is campy fun with a feel-good message.


The First Step

"I didn't know I was a sex addict," says Joe. "I just thought I was gay." In Henry Covery's comedy The First Step, Joe (Jeff Meacham) goes on a funny, touching, and at times poignant journey towards recovery, beginning with the first step for any addict: admitting that he has a problem.

As the lights come up at the top of the show, Joe is being orally serviced by Man 2 (Jason Currie). With his pants around his ankles, he casually addresses the audience: "You might think it's hard to talk to you and get blown at the same time," he states. "It's not." Meacham has a very relaxed, personable demeanor and his wry, humorous tone offsets the potential titillation of watching the simulated sex act. Since much of the show is delivered in first-person narration, this immediate establishment of a rapport between Joe and the audience is crucial.

The production also employs a variety of other staging strategies, ranging from whimsical sequences such as a sex addict meeting wherein everyone breaks into song as they reveal their addictions to more conventional, dialogue-driven scenes between two or more characters. The ensemble cast, directed by Michael Leeds, maintains a high level of energy and commitment to the material. Ali Anderson, the show's only female cast member, is particularly hilarious in the various roles that she plays.

Since The First Step is about sex addiction, it's no great shock that the show contains nudity; yet, surprisingly, it never feels gratuitous and is used sparingly so as to have greater dramatic or comic impact. Nevertheless, if you're feeling prudish, it's probably best to stay away. Although the play could use some tightening and editing, it deserves praise for the intelligent and meaningful way that it deals with a range of topics including child abuse, barebacking, and AIDS. While such issues are not always satisfactorily resolved, they are at least addressed in a complex manner that avoids melodrama.


J. Mark McVey (standing),
Matt Cavenaugh, and Marla Schaffel in
Jonestown: The Musical
(Photo © Gabe Evans)
Jonestown: The Musical

People will use anything as the subject of a musical these days. Case in point: Jonestown: The Musical. The show chronicles the rise and fall of cult leader Jim Jones, who, in 1978, led his followers to commit mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. With a book and lyrics by Brian Silliman and music and lyrics by Larry Lees, Jonestown is a cross between a parody and a more straightforward treatment of the story, with serious problems of style and tone.

Like Urinetown, the breakout Fringe hit of a few years ago, Jonestown attempts an ironic self-awareness of itself as a musical. Characters comment on the construction of the show's story and lyrics, as in the song "Part of the Job," where Congressman Leo Ryan (Robert Creighton) declares "I needed a word to fit the rhyme" to justify his pairing of the words "Saab" and "job." Unfortunately, such attempts at humor are more groan-inducing than they are funny.

The plot revolves around a young lieutenant in Jones's cult named Samuel Foreman, played by Matt Cavenaugh of Urban Cowboy fame. The audience sees his induction into the cult, his growing loyalty to Jones, and his questioning of the strange goings-on within the camp, yet Samuel isn't sufficiently developed as a character to make his journey compelling. Cavenaugh does about as well as could be expected with the role, but there's not much here to work with.

J. Mark McVey, as Jones, has a solid stage presence but not the charisma that would make his actions believable. Marla Schaffel, as Jones's wife, is grounded in her dramatic scenes but can't quite bring off the comedic sequences. Directed and choreographed by Sara Lampert Hoover, the show drags. This is particularly true of the final scene, which goes on and on to the point where I was tempted to shout, "Just shut up and drink the Kool-Aid!"


Big Trouble in Little Hazzard

Big Trouble in Little Hazzard seems like a sketch comedy routine dragged out to last an hour and 20 minutes. Peter Katona and Greg Derelian's parody of The Dukes of Hazzard contains no huge surprises; the humor is sophomoric, sexist, and homophobic, while the acting tends towards exaggerated caricature and the dialogue is fairly atrocious.

After a rather funny stage approximation of the opening credits for the TV series, the story commences with Bo and Luke Duke (played by Katona and Derelian) driving their beloved car, The General Lee; their cousin, Daisy Duke (Lauren Bittner), is in the back seat. As the guys talk to their Uncle Jesse (Connor Barrett) via CB radio, it's revealed that Daisy has a new set of jugs that, apparently, everyone in the Duke household is eagerly anticipating getting their hands on.

When Boss Hogg (Mark Mattek) finds out about this, he's convinced that "jugs" is a codeword for "moonshine"; he's eager to acquire the stuff and arrest the Duke boys for their illicit activities. He enlists the aid of Bo and Luke's cousins Coy and Vance Duke (Matthew Schwartz and Frank Liotti) to frame the boys for a crime so that they can be brought in and interrogated. The pairs of cousins are supposedly identical, but Coy and Vance are much more effeminate and swish across the stage in stereotypically gay fashion.

The rather flimsy plot gets more and more unbelievable as the show goes on. The character portrayals are purposefully one-dimensional and the show relies heavily on visual gags to keep things moving. Remy Auberjonois, as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane, is the most accomplished actor in the cast; he has great comic timing and an ebullient stage presence. Eric Martin Brown as Deputy Enos Strate is also rather amusing.

Director Will Frears, whose Off-Broadway credits include Omnium Gatherum and the brilliant Where We're Born, hasn't found the right tone for this production; everything is played in a larger-than-life farcical manner that gets old very quickly. While the pace of the show never exactly goes slack, neither does it build. A fight scene involving almost the entire cast (choreographed by Rick Sordelet) livens up the proceedings but the rest of the show stays pretty much on the same ho-hum level.

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