Theater: 'Jesus' Kid Brother' proves endearing

Special To The Register

Review: A musical spoof of the life of fictional Larry Christ strikes the right balance between humor and heart.

Not all of us have ever had to bear living in the shadow of a formidable older sibling, but imagine the plight of Larry Christ, whose big brother Jesus literally walked on water.

Putting ourselves in Larry's shoes is "Jesus' Kid Brother," an anything-but-epic little musical whose creators are the San Pedro-based brothers Brian and Mark Karmelich. The siblings started as rock musicians and songwriters, and their smart-alecky musical style proved a good fit with the world of musical theater.

The show, which gets a full staging in a five-week run at International City Theatre, is singularly unimposing - almost a throwaway, like an expanded comedy skit with clever songs. Indeed, much of this same territory was mined decades ago by "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

At ICT, though, that sketchy, revue-style nature is turned into an advantage by director Jules Aaron, musical director Brian Murphy and choreographer Brian Paul Mendoza. Most of the songs have a light, zany irreverence, balanced by a few others that give "Kid Brother" its solid-gold heart. It's a conventional formula - coating an affecting core with comedy - that proves to be the right direction for only the Karmelichs' second full-length stage show.

At that core are Larry, played in an endearingly innocuous fashion by Joseph Sark, and Mary Pilate (Kristen Beth Williams), who have one thing in common: Neither is too thrilled about their prospects.

The opening songs paint Larry as "a kid who couldn't help but fail." "Every time Jesus blows his nose," Larry laments, "the angels sing." How could he possibly live up to that? Mary may be the apple of daddy Pontius' eye, but she's just as miserable. Betrothed to the strutting Stu (David Eldon), who sees himself as Rome's next leader, she often wishes her surname weren't Pilate.

The plot places Larry and Mary on an obvious romantic collision course. The snag, of course, is that Jews, by Roman law, are not allowed to "cavort" with Romans, which transforms "Kid Brother" into a sweet, innocent and just slightly tart tale of would-be lovers from opposite sides of the track.

Comedic anachronisms abound: The Romans regard crucifixion as a business, just like any other. The local coffee shop is a "Star of David Bucks" (complete with Star of David logo), the local winemaker "Ernest and Julio Galilee." A newsboy hawks daily papers carved on stone tablets. The Sermon on the Mount is referred to as "a Jewapalooza," while Larry offers Mary a cup of "He-brew - a brewed tea made from a family recipe."

The music, meanwhile, is an appealing melange of rock, country-Western, big band, gospel, Broadway show tune and klezmer, deftly handled by Murphy and his five-man onstage band. The Karmelichs' real gift, though, is for lyrics that have a conversational tone - and which thumb their nose at various figures from antiquity without being offensive.

Aaron's cast responds to the show's quirks with a loose-limbed, offbeat style, all 12 members skilled at song, dance and light comedy. Sark's ingenuous Larry is a true mensch, a goodhearted young man searching for his place in the world. More critically, he makes us feel the mixed pangs of envy and uncertainty Larry undergoes during every waking moment.

Williams brings just the right touch of pathos to Mary, who would trade all the privileges of being a highborn Roman if it meant being with Larry. Eldon's Stu is a studly young hotshot so self-confident it never dawns on him that others may not see him as the obvious successor to Pontius Pilate. Jeffrey Landman's Joseph is a reassuring dad to Larry and a perplexed "stepfather" to Jesus. Brett Glazer excels in the small but very funny role of Kris, a geeky little guy in the crucifix industry who's a Roman-era equivalent of a computer nerd.

From every aspect, International City Theatre applies its usual solid production values. Mendoza's dance steps lend an engaging visual component, while Tom Buderwitz's set design and Shon LeBlanc's costumes use stylish, clean-cut lines to capture ancient times. The whole idea of mild sibling rivalry involving an iconic figure like Jesus Christ is something of a hoot, which makes "Jesus' Kid Brother" one big grace note.

(c) 2006 Orange County Register

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