Olney Theatre Center has a lot on its plate this season. Even with the challenge of the omicron variant, their recent successful and acclaimed runs of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Hedwig and the Angry Inch prove that the company has no intention of ceding much ground to the pandemic. Their latest offering of A.D. 16—a world-premiere musical imagining a teen romance between Mary Magdalene and Jesus of Nazareth—promises to continue this trend.
A.D. 16 boasts an impressive creative and production staff, helmed by Director Stephen Brackett—who is hot off his recent gig directing Woolly Mammoth’s stellar, Broadway-bound musical A Strange Loop. With music and lyrics by screenwriter Cinco Paul and book by TV writer and producer Bekah Brunstetter, it’s hard to imagine how this musical could fail to be a crowd-pleaser.
A.D. 16 opens in Nazareth with the newly arrived Mary Magdalene (Phoenix Best) and her father Jacob (Alan H. Green). Mary, after having upset the local Nazarene Girls clique—played by powerhouse vocalists Adelina Mitchell, Jade Jones, and Chani Wereley—also finds herself running afoul of the local morality-enforcing Sanhedrin Officers (Jared Loftin, Calvin McCullough, and Christian Montgomery). This draws the neighbor’s son, Jesus (Ben Fankhauser), to her defense. Mary is immediately smitten with the unusual young man and this sets off the chain of events that comprise the duration of the musical.
If you’re familiar with any of the above-named actors, you’ll know each of them is capable of carrying a musical on their own. Best is absolutely stunning as Mary Magdalene. Part Minnie Riperton and part Aaliyah, her vocals are a perfect match for this R&B and Motown-inspired set. Alan H. Green as her father, Jacob, is another highlight. Father and daughter relationships can be fraught as well as tender, and Green brings his smooth-as-silk voice and acting chops to the fore to communicate those nuances. Jared Loftin provides comic relief with his tightly wound and deeply repressed Sanhedrin Officer Nicholas. While it is clear that this is Mary Magdalene’s story, Ben Fankhauser also delivers mousy believability with this production’s particular version of man bun Jesus. Trust me when I say that there isn’t a weak link in this cast: They are reason enough to check this one out regardless of your interest in the source material.
Okay, so the music itself is awesome. As I mentioned, it is (mostly) R&B and Motown inspired. I speak only for those of us alive in the 90s, but if you enjoyed the TLC/SWV/Mary J. Blige/Brandy era of R&B, you will absolutely enjoy the vibe of this musical. It doesn’t quite hit the dizzying heights of, say, the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, but it still provides a heavy dose of nostalgia for fans of the genre. “That Boy,” featuring the Nazarene Girls and introducing itself with a lo-fi beat, was a particular favorite of mine. The audience was collectively delighted when Jade Jones (as Jessica, a Nazarene Girl) broke out into a rap during this number. “Make It Stick,” sung by Loftin, McCullough, and Montgomery’s Sanhedrin Officers, is clearly Beastie Boys–inspired and thoroughly enjoyable in every way. At the top of Act II, the humorous “Jesus Loves Me” brings the Motown sound to the fore.
Every element of production design comes together so, so well in this musical. Costume Designer Emilio Sosa uses both texture and color to bring first-century Nazareth to life. Scenic Designer Walt Spangler delivers a complex turntable set that was beautifully imagined and visually engaging. The design elements are in sync—an important thing for a show with such an unusual concept. Considering that the show includes so many shifts in tone as Mary Magdalene’s internal world comes to life in several fantasy sequences, the unity between creative elements is an impressive feat.
Given the fact that this show deals with religious themes in a somewhat irreverent manner, I do believe that there are certain subsets of people who may find the material offensive. Mostly, the musical does not attempt to provide answers to theological questions. It remains firmly grounded in natural—as opposed to supernatural—actions. Still, I think the very existence of this production flies in the face of claims of a continually secularizing culture. If most people didn’t have some cultural knowledge of Jesus and his parables, the jokes wouldn’t make much sense—proof that the Judeo-Christian narrative, at least, is still ubiquitous. The musical separates the moral and ethical principles of Jesus from the person of Jesus, and portrays those principles as very much originating in the culture of that era.
I have some criticism, not about the religious aspects of the show, but about the overall messaging. It comes across as confused, especially in Act II. The show puts so much weight on the Jesus and Mary Magdalene gimmick that it doesn’t really flesh out a lot of the threads it introduces in a way that’s satisfying. I’m wondering if the nervousness about offending religious sensibilities caused the writers to hesitate in committing to a particular ethic beyond a generic “Be Kind” type of message. I do believe that pushing it further one way or another will narrow the potential audience, but much of the appeal of religion is the promise of—internally, at least—a consistent ethical framework. You have to meet that with a premise that’s a bit more morally confident, in my opinion. Having said that, this is not a bad show by any means! It is immensely entertaining. The story needs a little more clarity and focus on emotional impact before it’s ready to move forward, I think, but the team behind it is strong and Olney’s cast and overall production are absolutely worth seeing.
A.D. 16 is a promising new musical with broad appeal. It’s lighthearted and funny enough to charm skeptics and, with its fun R&B-inspired score, is sure to attract fans of traditional musicals and newcomers alike. You especially won’t want to miss this rare opportunity to see all of these talented performers in one production, supported by a top-tier creative team.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
A.D. 16 plays through March 6, 2022, on the main stage at Olney Theatre Center—2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, MD. Regular performances are Wednesday–Saturday at 8:00 pm; matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 8:00 pm; and a Wednesday matinee at 2:00 pm on February 9, 23, and March 2. Tickets ($42–$85) can be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or online. Discounts are available for groups, seniors, military, and students.
The program for A.D. 16 is online here.
There will be a sign-interpreted performance on Thursday, March 3, 2022, at 8:00 pm and an audio-described performance for the blind and visually impaired on Wednesday, February 23, 2022 at 8:00 pm. Audience members who wish to use these services should contact Julie Via, Patron Services Manager ([email protected]) to confirm.
COVID Safety: Masks and proof of COVID vaccination are required to attend for all patrons. Exemptions may be made for those who are not vaccinated, such as children under 5, people with certain medical conditions preventing vaccination, or those with closely held religious beliefs. These patrons must provide proof of a timely negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 48 hours or a rapid antigen test taken within six hours of showtime. Visit OlneyTheatre.org/vax for more information.
Book by Bekah Brunstetter
Music & Lyrics by Cinco Paul
Story by Cinco Paul
Director Stephen Brackett
Choreographer Katie Spelman
Music Director Christopher Youstra
Orchestrations/Music Supervisor Doug Besterman
Scenic Designer: Walt Spangler • Costume Designer Emilio Sosa • Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills • Sound Designer Matt Rowe • Wig Designer Anne Nesmith • Dramaturg Alissa Klusky • Production Stage Manager Karen Currie
Mary: Phoenix Best
Diana: Kelli Blackwell
Jesus: Ben Fankhauser
Jacob: Alan H. Green
Jessica: Jade Jones
Nicholas: Jared Loftin
Mattias: Calvin McCullough
Ruth: Adelina Mitchell
Bartimaeus: Christian Montgomery
Simeon: Da’Von T. Moody
Esther: Chani Wereley
Ensemble: Alex De Bard, Sylvern Groomes Jr., Rj Pavel, John Sygar, Kanysha Williams
Swing: James Mernin, Tiffany Lyn Royster, Chris Urquiaga, Candice Shedd-Thompson