Children of Eden, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar; the theatrical scene is not short of musicals based on books from the Bible, from Genesis all the way to Jesus’s crucifixion, someone has written two hours’ worth of songs for it. Although all different from one another in style (for the most part) there’s one glaring similarity: all of the adapted stories have male leads. Sure the narrator in Joseph is a pretty bomb role, but even then she only exists to tell the man’s story.
Enter Rosemary Frisino Toohey and her newest work Judy and the General, a musical retelling of The Book of Judith. Although taking a few liberties from the source material, the musical is fairly accurate and tells the story of Judith, a widow who seeks out to save her town from an invading general, Holofernes, after the men in her town refuse to do anything. Using every resource at her fingertips she manages to infiltrate the enemies camp and seduce Holofernes only to behead him when he least expects it.
Cleary taking influence from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, the show manages to land a few slapstick moments, but overall falls into a bit of a muddled mess. The biggest issue I had was the inconsistency in the musical motifs of the show. Every song sounded different from the other. Although there’s no issue with experimenting with different musical styles within the same show (in fact some of the most successful musicals do this), they still need to sound as though they belong together, are from the same world. Something which did not happen in Judy and the General.
This is not to say I did not like the music, quite the contrary. Most of the songs manage to advance the plot as well as comment on the characters’ emotional journey, no easy task to achieve. However each song was just not in unity with the piece as a whole.
However songs only make half of a musical, the script of the show was really quite satisfying. The jokes landed, the modernization felt in place and even a necessary addition. The blending of biblical locations and plots with modern idioms and attitudes serves to create a world that is brand new. This world could use more exploring and embellishing in further iterations of the script, but overall I felt there were some gems throughout the book of the show.
It’s a brilliant start and I can’t wait to see what Rosemary Frisino Toohey is going to do next with this piece. If she manages to hone the style and skim some of the excess out (the show could really be a 90 minute on-act and still serve the story), she could have a huge hit on her hands.
In terms of this specific production of the show, well…it left a few things to be desired. I could break it down into specific thoughts on each actor and character and I probably will in a little bit, but overall everyone had the same problem: not committing. Whether this was to physical action, emotional story arc, or even to a specific note, the cast as a whole seemed timid and unsure. This was especially aggravating in some of the more comedic scenes (especially with Richard Greenslit as the King’s servant) where every moment of physical comedy was dampened by a lack of commitment. Greenslit also was consistently unsure of when to come in musically, constantly locking eyes with fellow cast mates to take cues from them of when and what to sing. This is not only uninteresting to watch but it actively disengages the audience from the show as a whole.
Kay-Megan Washington as the Maid suffers from similar issues. Her character is the narrator and serves witty commentary throughout while simultaneously stepping in to the story to help Judy defeat Holofernes. While she was immediately likeable in the role and created nice engaging moments with the audience, I could almost feel her holding her breath throughout the show. It felt as though she wanted to really let loose and be a fierce sarcastic narrator who has opinions on the show she is telling, however she never fully went there. She has a fine voice and good instincts, she just needs to trust them and follow through.
Wayne Ivusich as multiple characters including the King, Judy’s father, and so on did a fairly decent job with the score and characters. I would have liked to see him go even further with the ridiculousness of his Potiphar-esque King, but all in all he provided good laughs and found nice nuances in his musical numbers.
Rob Wall felt exactly like that…a wall. Playing both the titular general and Judy’s husband, Manasseh, his characters are written as stereotypical masculine men and therefore he had that working against him from the start. Following the correct impulse, he constantly wanted to appear hard and unflinching. The problem with that is without even a moment of vulnerability, there is no way for an audience to connect and care about the stakes your character is facing.
This leaves us with Judy herself played by Kellie Podsednik. Beautiful voice, beautiful physical movements on stage, just okay emotional arc. The play is in essence a bildungsroman, in other words: the main character’s growth in the most important aspect of the play. As it is written, Judy starts the tale as a girl yearning for something greater, and ends as this fierce, accomplished warrior who uses her intelligence and sexuality to save her entire town. Podsednik never really hooks into this arc and never really changes throughout. Her phrasing, her physicality, and the way she puts moments together all remain the same throughout the whole play. This is not to say any of the above are not well done, it’s all quite fine, it’s just all too similar for a play that stretches multiple years and contains huge life altering events.
The play is in a good place for its first full stage production. The music needs to be condensed to become unified, and the script could use some tightening to smooth out transitions and inconsistencies (and please, please, PLEASE remove the ableist humor about Manasseh being seeing impaired, it’s not funny at best and completely ableist at worst). I completely commend Spotlighters for giving this piece a venue for its first production and I hope other theatres take note and make space in their seasons for new pieces and musicals as well.
Should I stay or should I go? If you like experimental new works, or works about strong feminist leads then absolutely go! While not the best production I’ve ever seen, the show tells an empowering story in an entertaining way, and I will always implore everyone to support new work, especially when it’s local. (B)
Playing at Spotlighters Theatre through July 29th. Running time a little over two hours with one 15-minute intermission.