Big Bird Rises


By John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Valerie Gramling
Oasis Theatre Company
230 East 9th St. (673-3706)
Non-union production (closes October 20)
Review by Marshall Yaeger

This revival of the 1971 musical, based on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, has been deservedly extended. It will entertain and paint smiles on people's faces and may even make some of them think ... a little.

Each of the bouncy, fine-looking cast of likable players, painted with body tattoos and glitter, and wearing neat flower-power, pacifist costumes, had nice moments. They were Elizabeth Barkan, Bradley Dean Clark, Michael Dicus, Stacey J. Dotson, Laura Fallon, Tam Johnson, Kimberly Luecke, Suzanne Melia, Cheryl Orsini, and Miriam Weiner.

It fell to Mr. Johnson to play the absolute paradigm of charismatic teachers. More sweetly persuasive than authoritative, his Christianity would never have triumphed under such non-threatening leadership.

Musical director Erich Rausch, despite a lousy piano, got some exciting sounds and exceptionally fine ensemble singing out of the troupe. That part was worth the trip.

The story isn't much. Mainly, Jesus walks around reciting parables until he's crucified. But it was sometimes hard to tell whether or not the playwright's tongue was cleaving to the side of his cheek with lines like: ``Master, let me chastise the vixen.'' Unfortunately, some revised translations (such as ``Don't sin again'' vs. ``Go, and sin no more'') often lost their majesty.

But it must have been a director's dream to be assigned the Tower of Babel, Noah's animals, Heaven and Hell, the Crucifixion, casting the first stone, the return of the Prodigal Son, Satan's minions, and the literal wailing and gnashing of teeth (which went ``wail, wail, wail'' and ``gnash, gnash, gnash'').

Given these tasks, the director displayed no shortage of cute and clever imagination. (The lights and set, however, left just about everything to the imagination.) But things worked less well when tending toward the intellectual, where vaudeville offered little to figures such as Sartre and Socrates (identified by signs). These scenes offered scant meat and potatoes to take away.

The show's theology was on even shakier ground with God rewarding charity with goodies from the Great Beyond, or the chanting of ``Long live God!''--which boggled the mind. Were these touches consistent with Christianity? Or did the play slink too close to kindergarten? The question resonated in Jesus's critique of the Pharisees, which Mr. Johnson quoted at one point: ``They say one thing and they do another. Everything they do they do for show.''

To be sure there were heartfelt moments here and there, even a scattering of tears. But mostly the play was like a Sesame Street version of Das Kapital. It can be done; but perhaps things could have aimed a little higher--like, for instance, heavenward? (Artistic Director, Brenda Lynn Bynum.)

Box Score:
Writing 2
Directing 2
Acting 2
Set 1
Costumes 2
Lighting/Sound 1
Copyright 1996 Marshall Yaeger

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