A.D. 16
Phoenix Best as Mary and Ben Fankhauser as Jesus in A.D. 16 at Olney Theatre Center; Credit: Teresa Castracane Photography

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Prepare ye the way of the best biblical musical since Godspell.

It’s A.D. 16, as in both the title of this big-hearted, hilarious show and the year when the action is set. Enter our future Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, a Judean teen who tells feel-good stories about lost sheep and frequently visits the local leper colony. 

Then a 16-year-old girl named Mary and her fisherman father move from Magdala to a Nazareth shack across the alley from Joseph the Carpenter. Suddenly loving thy neighbor takes on a whole new meaning. 

Olney Theatre Center hosts this world premiere collaboration by playwright Bekah Brunstetter (who wrote for NBC’s This Is Us) and Schmigadoon! creator Cinco Paul. Why would a streaming TV hitmaker stage his new musical in suburban Montgomery County? Excellent question: A.D. 16 has been in the works for years; Schmigadoon! was Paul’s wildly successful pandemic pivot. Jason Loewith, Olney’s artistic director, saw a 2018 workshop production of A.D. 16 and booked the musical in part because so many mosques, synagogues, and churches are within five miles of the theater, he writes in the program notes. Investing in an uncynical show that celebrates scripture seemed like not only a solid financial move, but a good faith effort to serve the community.

Then came Schmigadoon! Suddenly, the screenwriter previously best known for Despicable Me was a hot theatrical commodity. Multiple Broadway producers attended the same Saturday matinee as me, Loewith confirmed at intermission. I hope they laughed as hard as I did. 

A.D. 16 is no tuneful tear-jerker that climaxes with the crucifixion; it’s a tongue-in-cheek musical comedy set in the early years of the Roman empire. Yet because two dueling musicals about Jesus have been alienating many Catholics and evangelical Christians for 50 years, it’s understandable that some may be hesitant to see A.D. 16

In 1971, both Godspell (by Steven Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak) and Jesus Christ Superstar (by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber) became box office hits by questioning the divinity (and virginity) of Jesus. The 50th anniversary tour running at the Kennedy Center through March 13 is as over-the-top as Superstar can get: Herod is basically in drag and ensemble members launch glitter at Jesus to symbolize 39 lashes while electric guitars rage. (I’ve personally always preferred Godspell, with its counter-culture hippie Messiah.)

A.D. 16 is more subtle, and more empathetic. Paul served as a Mormon missionary to Japan, while Brunstetter was raised Southern Baptist. Other than the Sanhedrin (a historic rabbinical class who enforced rules like “no working on the Sabbath”) Paul and Brunstetter never mock their own characters. In fact, observant Jews and Christians (or those raised in either tradition) may embrace the show’s humor more than the average agnostic. When Mary (Phoenix Best) introduces herself to a trio of young women in Nazareth, one retorts, “Ugh. There are too many Marys already. There’s the carpenter’s wife, Martha’s sister, the prostitute…” 

“I hope I won’t be mistaken for the prostitute,” Mary of Magdala quips back. She showed up in town with a sign around her neck that read, “Possessed by seven demons.” Onstage locals don’t appreciate these jokes, but New Testament readers in the audience will.

And there’s plenty of Easter eggs available for those more familiar with Hebrew scriptures too. “No need to make a sacrifice,” Jesus (Ben Fankhauser) croons in his smooth falsetto. “Numbers, Deuteronomy. Love is my economy.” 

Best and Fankhauser each have a handful of Broadway and National tour credits, but bring to the stage equally sincere teen angst (Mary) and teen earnestness (Jesus). While unrequited love is often cloying in musical theater (see: Les Miserables, Passion), Best’s crush comes across as universal; she’s every outcast at school who’s ever liked a popular kid, although there are no educational opportunities for women in the first century, and, as Jesus points out, “most of the guys my age around here were killed by the king when they were babies.”

Standout supporting characters include Da’Von T. Moody as the moonwalking leader of the local leper colony (Katie Spelman, who manages to make dancing in flat sandals look sophisticated and cool, handles choreography), and Jared Loftin as the Sanhedrin leader who’s always ready to throw the first stone.

Scenic designer Walt Spangler created a compact, turntable set that evokes a rambling hillside settlement with anachronistic neon lights. Emilio Sosa’s quasi-historical costumes come with clever nods to the 21st century, including a cold-shoulder dress for Mary and Utilikilts for the Sanhedrin, who rap like first-century Beastie Boys

Overall, the A.D. 16’s music is bluesy and still in need of revision. There’s little underscoring; this is one of those shows where the plot stops when the music starts. Some numbers achieve a solid Black gospel grove and others aim for ‘90s hip-hop. No songs, I regret to report, are as catchy as Schmigadoon’s foot-stomping Oklahoma-parody “Corn Puddin’.” Mary could use some back-up vocals and better choreography for her 11 o’clock number, “Better Than This,” and the finale, likewise, would benefit from more dynamic movement. 

Yet the central message of this musical is ready to go and more needed than ever. Loewith tells City Paper his hope was for A.D. 16 to be a musical for the post-Trump era. Although arriving a pandemic later than expected, America still needs a show that gently rebukes moralizing hypocrites while reinforcing the timeless command to love thy neighbor as thyself, whether those neighbors are a family of refugees next door, or that guy down the street with all the wrong yard signs. 

A.D. 16, written by Bekah Brunstetter and Cinco Paul and directed by Stephen Brackett, runs through March 20 at Olney Theatre Center. olneytheatre.org. $64–$99; $20 student rush and other promotions available.