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Review: A.D. 16 at Olney Theatre Center

An exuberant, ambitious world premiere musical packed with talent.

A.D. 16 is a big, exuberant, ambitious musical that's packed with talent, now making its world premiere at Olney Theatre Center.

Review: A.D. 16 at Olney Theatre Center
Phoenix Best as Mary (center) with the Nazarene Girls, Adelina Mitchell as Ruth (left), Chani Wereley as Esther (rear), and Jade Jones as Jessica (right)

A twist on a girl meets the boy tale, in A.D. 16 we encounter a teenaged Mary Magdalene as she moves to Nazareth and develops a giddy crush on the boy next door, a carpenter's son named Jesus. More sweet than The Book of Mormon, more sassy than Godspell, A.D. 16 takes as its source material the missing teen years of Jesus, layers in an effervescent Motown- and R&B-influenced score, and sprinkles in a little irreverence and anachronistic humor.

This is a musical with its eyes on Broadway. With music and lyrics by Cinco Paul (Despicable Me, Schmigadoon!), book by Bekah Brunstetter (This Is Us) and direction by Stephen Brackett (Broadway's The Lightning Thief, Be More Chill and the upcoming A Strange Loop that soon opens on Broadway after its successful run at DC's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company), the production has a proven and visionary team. That's not to say this world premiere wouldn't benefit from some tweaks as it continues to evolve - particularly in the final quarter of the production. But come see it now for its powerhouse performances, lush production values, and captivating songs. DC-area audiences have gotten opportunities to experience top musicals at early stages in their creation (from West Side Story to Dear Evan Hansen) and here's a rare chance for area theater fans to say, "I knew this when...".

Review: A.D. 16 at Olney Theatre Center
Phoenix Best as Mary and Da'Von T. Moody as Simeon

At its core, A.D. 16 is the coming of age story of Mary Magdalene. The role is in the extraordinarily capable hands of Phoenix Best, whose Broadway credits include Dear Evan Hansen and The Color Purple. Best's gorgeous voice that can deliver both crystalline delicacy and soulful heft is an extraordinary match with Paul's music and lyrics. Best has strong comic timing and a depth that ushers her Mary Magdalene from a self-centered and frivolous girl to a young woman with greater strength, agency and appreciation.

In A.D. 16, teenaged Jesus (Ben Fankhauser) confidently ministers to mankind though he is certainly an awkward and gawky teen as he navigates everyday social encounters. Yet we get to see Jesus through Mary Magdalene's besotted eyes in a hilarious fantasy number, "Take You to Heaven," that gives Fankhauser an opportunity to spin, sidle, smolder and purr a few "grrrl"s in a wonderful nod to the boy bands of the 90s.

Review: A.D. 16 at Olney Theatre Center
Phoenix Best as Mary and Ben Fankhauser as Jesus in a fantasy scene from A.D. 16

A tender surprise is the other man in Mary's life: her single dad, Jacob (Alan H. Green). His affecting ballad, "If She Were a He," makes us take note early in the first act that while A.D. 16 is propelled by great irreverent humor and snappy songs, there is a strong and tender heart at the center of this production. In a society that sees women as property valued merely for their child-bearing, we see Jacob sacrifice for his daughter even as he is exasperated by her teen-angst.

Jade Jones, Adelina Mitchell, and Chani Wereley as the trio of Nazarene girls bring down the house in numbers like "That Boy" and "Throwing My Love Away." Each stands out as a powerful individual and together they are a memorable and remarkable group. In their layered and harmonious songs, each voice elevates the others' to a powerful whole.

The trio of Sanhedrin officers (Jared Loftin as Nicholas, Calvin McCullough as Matthias and Christian Montgomery as Bartimaeus) provide energy, drive and humor. However, Nicholas' evolution at the conclusion of the production doesn't fit and is confusing.

The ensemble is especially strong, bringing great depth and richness to the vocals, and power and pop to the choreography. Whether as judges, lepers or Nazarenes, these actors are an instrumental part of the production's success. Da'Von T. Moody as Simeon, the leper, is especially effective and affecting.

Review: A.D. 16 at Olney Theatre Center
Phoenix Best as Mary and Alan H. Green as her father, Jacob

Nearly every musical number is a gem unto itself. Doug Besterman's orchestrations and Christopher Youstra's music direction highlight and enhance Paul's songs. Musical influences nod to Motown, 90s dance-pop and R&B from NSYNC to Prince to TLC. Katie Spelman's choreography is a fun and upbeat extension of each song. The fizz and fun of the music and dance make it hard for the audience not to participate with some head nodding and shoulder shaking of its own.

One missed opportunity is the production's final number, "On Your Way" which was muted in comparison with the verve and high energy of the rest of A.D. 16.

The production elements for A.D. 16 are of the highest quality. In particular, Colin K. Bills' lighting design suffuses Walt Spangler's first-century stone village with gorgeous color and signals changing moods and environments. Emilio Sosa's costumes echo Bills' jeweled color pallet. Anne Nesmith's wig design and Matt Rowe's sound design are essential to the success of the production. (Kudos to the actors who navigate the village's steep steps in sandals and a prosthetic maternity bump that keeps them from seeing their feet!)

A.D. 16 is an extraordinary gift. New work is risky and expensive. Artistic Director Jason Loewith's commitment to nurture A.D. 16 at Olney Theatre Company is a bold step that has paid off. A.D. 16 is masterful. It is impressive. It is a delight.

Review: A.D. 16 at Olney Theatre Center
Phoenix Best (Mary) receiving advice from the Nazarene Girls, Adelina Mitchell (Ruth), Chani Wereley (Esther), and Jade Jones (Jessica)

Running Time: 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission

A.D. 16 by Bekah Brunstetter (book) and Cinco Paul (music, lyrics and story) is produced by Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. The in-person production runs February 4 - March 6, 2022. For tickets, accessible performance information, COVID-19 attendance policies, and further information visit the company's website.

A.D. 16 is directed by Stephen Brackett. The production features choreography by Katie Spelman, music direction by Christopher Youstra, orchestrations/music supervisor by Doug Besterman, Scenic Design by Walt Spangler, Costume Design by Emilio Sosa, lighting design by Colin K. Bills, sound designer by Matt Rowe, Wig Design by Anne Nesmith, and production stage manager is Karen Currie.

The cast of A.D. 16 includes Phoenix Best as Mary, Ben Fankhauser as Jesus, Kelli Blackwell as Diana, Alan H. Green as Jacob, Jade Jones as Jessica, Jared Loftin as Nicholas, Calvin McCullough as Matthias, Adelina Mitchell as Ruth, Christian Montgomery as Bartimaeus, Da'Von T. Moody as Simeon, and Chani Wereley as Esther. The ensemble includes Alex De Bard, Sylvern Groomes Jr., RJ Pavel, John Sygar, and Kanysha Williams; with James Mernin, Tiffany Lyn Royster, Candice Shedd-Thompson and Chris Urquiaga as swings.

Photo Credits: Teresa Castracane Photography



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