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One would think that the events leading up to the first performance of Handel's Messiah would make for a very dry evening of theater. On the contrary, Tim Slover's new play Joyful Noise at the Lamb's Theatre has the feel of a juicy soap opera, with a plot combining religious protest, political alienation, social humiliation, and a sex scandal involving a soprano. All of this takes place in 18th-century London--and, rest assured, Merchant-Ivory never would have told the story this way.

The events of the play begin in 1741, with George Fredrick Handel (played by Tom Stephenson) in a slump: All of his recent operas are suffering from poor attendance and worse word of mouth, driving him into public fits of rage. Handel's staunchest patron, Queen Caroline, has recently died, leaving King George II (Robert Smyth) unwilling to support Handel's work or to pay off his mounting debts. Life is bleak until the composer's collaborator, Charles Jennens (Paul Eggington), presents him with the source material for what turns out to be Handel's masterwork.

The premiere of Messiah in 1743 seems to anger everyone in London, for one reason or another. The church, led by Bishop Henry Egerton (David Cochran Heath), objects to the use of sacred texts for entertainment; and the casting of Susannah Cibber (Mary Miller), a socially ostracized adulteress, shocks society. It is through these trials and tribulations that the strength of an artist working against all odds becomes evident.

Handel makes for a stirring protagonist here, and Tom Stephenson brings him to vibrant life with a performance that is equally hilarious and heartbreaking. He avoids the obvious trap of turning the composer into a caricature, instead playing him as a tender, compassionate man with a beating heart. This Handel is not a raving lunatic or a crazed genius, but a sensitive, childlike artist.

Mary Miller matches Stephenson's performance with her subtle embodiment of Susannah Cibber. Miller's haunting eyes and angelic voice communicate the pain of this woman's past and elicit great sympathy for her as she attempts to pull the pieces of her life back together. One of the play's best moments comes when Susannah, intimidated by the reaction to her casting, drops out of the Messiah and flees from the theater--only to find Handel right behind her, begging her to return. Stephenson and Miller bring a real beauty to this scene of an artist and his muse looking to one another for the strength to face their deepest fears.

Deborah Gilmour Smyth is also excellent as Kitty Clive, the play's most outrageous and entertaining character. Kitty possesses a heavenly voice, as displayed in The Beggar's Opera and enjoyed by Handel; but she is a bad actress, a shark willing to do whatever is necessary to get what she wants. At one point, Kitty comes to Handel's home to audition and, at his mocking request, performs her awful version of Desdemona's death scene from Othello; eventually realizing that she is being made fun of, she plans revenge on the composer by teaming up with Bishop Egerton to make sure that Messiah fails miserably. Smyth brings a Bette Davis-like intensity to her role, stalking about the stage and taking control of every scene she appears in. Her character also takes a nice turn when she realizes later in the play, after she has appropriated Susannah's solos upon her exit, that success is hardly enjoyable when it is at the expense of another. This is an excellent performance, one that commands attention from start to finish.

Some of the other actors do not fare as well: e.g., David Cochran Heath (a one-note Bishop Egerton), Robert Smyth (the Lamb's Theatre's artistic director, as a robotic George II), Linda Bush (only mildly diverting as Mary Pendarves), Paul Eggington and Doren Elias's (both forgettable as Charles Jennens and John Christopher Smith, respectively). Whatever the failings of his performance, Smyth has directed a remarkable looking production with haunting lights and sets by David Thayer and gorgeous costumes by Jeanne Reith.

As for Slover's script, it is often witty, occasionally scathing, and inspiring. In the last scene, the cast brings the show to a rousing finale with a performance of the "Hallelujah" chorus from Messiah which reminds us that the fame of the piece is well deserved--especially after all of the trouble that Handel and his companions went through to make such a joyful noise heard on that glorious night of March 23, 1743.

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