Jesus' brother keeps the faith

By Daryl H. Miller, Times Staff Writer

The musical, streamlined for a Long Beach production, still has a certain breezy charm and humor.

It didn't grab quite as much attention as discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but when word emerged in 2003 that Jesus had a kid brother named Larry, curiosity-seekers flocked to a Hollywood theater to hear the story revealed.

The tale is being told anew at International City Theatre in Long Beach, in a somewhat revamped version of the comic musical "Jesus' Kid Brother." The surroundings are cartoon-colored, the humor vaudevillian as the sweet but luckless young protagonist sings: "Everything he says and does / makes me feel incomplete. / Jesus is here to save mankind / how can I compete?" The book, music and lyrics, by brothers Brian and Mark Karmelich, call to mind "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" yet contain comic gems of their own.

In 2003, the show was presented in two acts, in about two hours. It is now streamlined to just less than 90 minutes, without intermission. The songs are the same, though three of the original 22 numbers have been cut, as have some verses of the remaining tunes.

The cast is mostly new, but director Jules Aaron is back, as are choreographer Brian Paul Mendoza and musical director Brian Murphy.

The result is as deliriously entertaining as ever and a bit breezier to boot.

Heeding father Joseph's advice to "find a good job and / fall in love, / that's a noble goal," Larry (boyish, likable Joseph Sark) and buddy Barabbas (Christopher Dean Briant, with hair spiked into a 21st century faux-hawk) circulate into the wider world, which puts them in contact with Mary Pilate (sunny Kristen Beth Williams), daughter of Pontius, that bigwig in the Roman power structure that so oppresses the Jews. When romance sparks between Larry and Mary, they become Romeo and Juliet, pursued by blowhard centurion Stu (David Eldon, bare-chested and outfitted in a leather skirt that would have been too short even for the pre-mommy Britney Spears).

The score is a pastiche that, much like "Joseph/Dreamcoat," imitates Motown, folk, country-western and more. Though pleasant enough, the songs in too many instances consist of only about two catchy passages, which get endlessly repeated. This aural relentlessness causes the show, even in stream-lined form, to lose momentum through much of its final third.

The 12 singer-actors really sell the numbers, nevertheless, their voices locking into tight, driving harmonies as they execute choreography that incorporates a bit of Jewish folk dance one moment, some '60s herky-jerk the next. The five players in the onstage band, led by Murphy at the keyboard, kick things up yet another notch.

Scenes unfold in a hilarious rush of quirky character details and pop culture references. Aaron and his actors must have had fun coming up with all that; the audience definitely has a blast spotting it . and all while rooting for Larry to find his own place in the world.

NOTE: On Thursday, February 16: Critic's Choice Section:

A hit in 2003, the comic musical about the guy with the ultimate kid-brother complex returns in a smaller, tighter version. The laughs are as big as ever, though, as director Jules Aaron and his performers infuse Brian and Mark Karmelich's already wild story with all sorts of quirky character details and pop culture references.

(c) 2006 Los Angeles Times

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