Jesus' Kid Brother
by Sharon Perlmutter
The musical is set in a sort of anachronistic Biblical time period - everyone gets coffee at "Star (of David) bucks" and Pontius Pilate regularly crucifies telemarketers. Grounding the show in this non-existent time does more than just give writers Brian and Mark Karmelich fodder for silly jokes, it serves the more important purpose of distancing the show from its Biblical roots. Jesus' crucifixion is not generally considered a laugh riot, but the Karmelich brothers manage to take the story far enough away from realism that the audience has full permission to not take any of it seriously. Paradoxically, the show also retains a core of respect for the Gospels - at times, Jesus' Kid Brother flirts with the profane, but he never actually dives head-first into it. That the show's plot allows itself to get a laugh by the mere suggestion of something wholly sacrilegious, but then backs away into safer ground, is the real marvel of the script.
The music, played live by a five-member band, is varied and ranges from serious ballads to the "Free Barabbas Polka" and everything in between.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with particularly strong performances from David Brouwer as the likeable lead, Amir Talai as an overprotective father who also happens to be Pontius Pilate (Talai also has way too much fun when he doubles as Judas), Rana Davis as Pilate's other daughter who can't seem to get a break, and Christopher Dean Briant as Larry's best friend Barabbas. Briant ventures dangerously close to overplaying the comic sidekick bit, but when he screws up his face into a purposely corny expression and starts an equally corny (thanks to choreographer Brian Paul Mendoza) dance number, there's no way to not give in and disappear into a puddle of giggles.
Briant's comedic work is illustrative of why Jesus' Kid Brother ultimately works - everyone is giving one hundred percent. The cast has an astonishing amount of energy and they put forward the material, even at its cheesiest, with unabashed commitment. The concept of a dance sequence featuring half-naked Roman bath house guards (wearing nothing but towels and helmets) walks the line between stupid and silly, but this cast sells it so convincingly, it's a winning piece of comedy.
The show, in the 99-seat Hudson Mainstage Theatre, is highly amplified, with each actor wearing an individual mike with the sound sent through speakers that seem to mix the entire experience into a single track. The result is a little disconcerting - you might be sitting ten feet away from the actors, but in an ensemble number, you have absolutely no idea who is singing what line, because all the sound comes from the same place. Partial compensation is made by having a spotlight hit whoever is singing, but there's still a fundamental disconnect between the audience and the performers, because it doesn't feel like any of these people are actually singing. This is probably the only way to deal with a live, loud band in this small house, but it would almost be preferable to have the band prerecorded so the singers could sound more live.
That's a small problem, though, and one that would surely be overcome if the show moves to a bigger house, which it very well might. Jesus' Kid Brother isn't the second coming, but it's a damn funny night at the theatre.