Trisha’s Take: “Not the Messiah” review

Not the Messiah: He’s a Very Naughty Boy

Directed by Aubrey Powell
Written by Eric Idle, John Du Prez
Starring William Ferguson, Rosalind Plowright, Shannon Mercer, Christopher Purves, Eric Idle and featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Special Guests (in order of first appearance): Michael Palin, Carol Cleveland, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Neil Innes

When I first heard that they were going to be turning Monty Python and the Holy Grail into a Broadway musical, my immediate reaction was to scoff and wonder which idiot it was who thought it up. Imagine my chagrin when I learned that the “idiot” was original Monty Python cast member Eric Idle, he who was responsible for writing and performing many of their more popular songs, including “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” and (my favorite)“Penis Song (Not the Noel Coward Song).”

I never got to see Spamalot in its original run, but considering that it was nominated for 14 Tony Awards, won the Best Musical Award in 2005, and got some very good reviews, you can imagine why I didn’t hesitate to press play when I learned that the performance of an oratorio written by Idle and John Du Prez, his Spamalot collaborator, was streaming on Netflix.

Based on Monty Python’s Life of Brian and called “Not the Messiah: He’s a Very Naughty Boy,” this particular production was filmed at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the 40th anniversary celebration of the creation of the TV series. For those of you who aren’t British or Anglophiles but are Doctor Who fans, you’ll know this place as the one where they held a two different concerts featuring music from the series and featured an original video in 2008 starring 10th Doctor David Tennant and hosted by Matt Smith (the 11th Doctor), Karen Gillan (Amy Pond), and Arthur Darvill (Rory Williams) in 2010.

The show opened with the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing the Monty Python theme song, “The Liberty Bell March,” and I have to say that I absolutely loved the notion that this grand march was being played by a full orchestra in such a lovely and historic building to celebrate some of the greatest sketch comedians who ever lived.

All of the best highlights from Life of Brian were touched upon in the oratorio. The songs which stood out to me as being best adapted from the movie as well as being musically interesting were “What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?” lead masterfully by bass Christopher Purves; “The People’s Front of Judea” which introduced soprano Shannon Mercer as Judith, Brian’s love interest; and “Not the Messiah,” where the call and response nature of the song even more strongly emphasized the ridiculousness of the crowd’s blind faith in Brian as the Messiah.

However, my favorite songs and those which I think were the most clever were those which strayed away from slavishly following the plot. The argument at a meeting of the People’s Front of Judea where Eric Idle as Stan wants to be recognized as a woman (“I Want to Be a Girl”) turns into a very sweet song between tenor William Ferguson and Mercer as they declare their love for each other. Mezzo-soprano Rosalind Plowright as Mandy, Brian’s mother, gets her shots in during “When They Grow Up” as well, another song which makes much of a small moment in the movie.

But perhaps the best song (and the most cheeky) was “Amourdeus,” a short song without words which consisted solely of short notes sung in rapid staccato. In short, it’s a duet between Ferguson and Mercer where the facial expressions on each made it very, very clear that Brian and Judith are having sex. If you don’t believe me, take a gander:

Of course, you couldn’t have a 40th anniversary celebration without other members of the Monty Python cast showing up. Michael Palin was the most frequent guest vocalist who had the most costume changes in his dual roles as Mrs. Betty Palin, the female narrator, Julius Caesar, reprising his exaggerated speech impediment from the film, a random Roman centurion, and an encore performance as the lumberjack from “The Lumberjack Song.” Terry Jones turned in a great performance in “Take Us Home,” which itself was a parody of old labor union songs, complete with the BBC Symphony Chorus backing him up clad in yellow construction helmets. Fellow Pythons Terry Gilliam and Carol Cleveland also made appearances, mostly to round out costumed bits during “We Love Sheep” (Cleveland) and the mariachi-themed “Find Your Dream” (Cleveland, Gilliam, Jones and Idle).

Incidentally, it’s within “Find Your Dream” that one of my problems with this production comes out; for a group that was known for biting satire that had subtlety and wit, the parody and callbacks within the songs can sometimes be too overt. The themes in “Dream” are too damn similar to Spamalot’s “Find Your Grail” while “A Fair Day’s Work” owes way too much to “The Lumberjack’s Song” while rifling through Gilbert and Sullivan’s pockets for loose lyrics. But I suppose that Idle and Du Prez felt that if anyone was going to be ripping off their work, it might as well be them.

My other huge problem with the performances is mostly exemplified in “Mandy’s Lament,” where I had to turn on the subtitles just so I could figure out exactly what Rosalind Plowright was singing. This is a problem I’ve acknowledged before in other reviews, but I’m starting to think that it isn’t all just a problem on my end but rather that of the enunciation and diction of the performer.

Out of the four soloists, I have to say that I love the Julliard-trained William Ferguson as Brian the most because his lines were the most clear, his facial expressions the most animated, and his youthful appearance and vocalization was a great interpretation of the role which had been originated by Graham Chapman. His talent was on display the most during “The Market Square” and “You’re the One” where he poured every emotion into his face and voice. Even when the focus is on someone else, as in the show’s closing singalong of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” by Idle, you can still see Ferguson acting as Brian in the wide shots; dedication to character is what makes his performance the best.

As far as tribute shows and anniversary concerts go, there couldn’t have been a better choice of material, venue, or performers for “Not the Messiah.” It’s definitely one for Monty Python fans, but judging from the reaction of the early music aficionado I saw it with, this is a production that classical music fans will appreciate as well. There’s even a free 30 min. behind the scenes film up on for you to gander at, should you be that indecisive.

It’s streaming on Netflix, it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray; I can’t think of any other method you’d need to be able to view this production, short of taking a TARDIS, a phone booth, or a DeLorean to the original performance date.