'Not the Messiah': Eric Idle Revs Up

Conductor John Du Prez, Eric Idle and Jean Stillwell in the comic oratorio Thursday at Wolf Trap.
Conductor John Du Prez, Eric Idle and Jean Stillwell in the comic oratorio Thursday at Wolf Trap. (By Andi Kling)
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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Most of the world's great oratorios, it's probably fair to say, don't generate a lot of belly laughs. But then again, most oratorios don't feature a Bob Dylan imitation, a troupe of bagpipers, three stuffed sheep and a musical leaf-blower -- all of which appeared at Wolf Trap on Thursday night in Eric Idle's hysterically funny new production, "Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy)."

Idle, of course, is one of the geniuses behind Monty Python's Flying Circus, and here he reinvents the classic Python film "Life of Brian" along the lines of Handel's stately, reverential "Messiah."

It's a spectacularly loony idea, and Idle and his collaborator, composer John Du Prez, brought it off brilliantly. The fable of Brian Cohen (who was born on the same day as Jesus and, despite his best efforts, is thrust into the role of religious leader) is a finely tuned satire that skewers human stupidity across the board, from mindless fanatics to petulant would-be revolutionaries.

Perfect material, in other words, for a 21st-century oratorio. Idle rewrote the film's key scenes as songs, which Du Prez then set to music with gleeful abandon -- mixing spirituals, doo-wop, Scottish ballads, Sondheim-ish show tunes, John Philip Sousa and even a tip of the hat to Handel himself.

Du Prez conducted the National Symphony Orchestra and the Master Chorale of Washington with a light touch, and there were fine turns by the four soloists, particularly the young tenor William Ferguson in the role of Brian. But it was Idle himself who stole the show (his dead-on Dylan impersonation will go down in musical history). After the show closed with a singalong of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," the audience brought him back for three curtain calls.

-- Stephen Brookes

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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