Pythons’ Brian has lots of life left in him
No, of course, Brian Cohen is not the Messiah (you need to ask?). And at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday night, we all knew very well, thank you, that “Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy)” would not be “The Messiah.” It’s the bad-boy bit, though, that one wondered about in a merry mash-up between Handel and “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” by Pythoner Eric Idle and conductor John Du Prez.
The question was just how bad a boy Idle was prepared to be. A Hollywood Bowl Hall of Famer, he was part of the inspired Monty Python appearance 28 years ago, an event that has a place in the amphitheater’s history alongside the 1964 Beatles concert, Percy Grainger’s wedding on stage to an unsuspecting Australian naif in 1928 and Zubin Mehta’s “Star Wars” concert in the ‘70s.
But these are touchy times, and the Pythons’ mock biblical epic was a controversial film when it was released in 1979. It ends with Brian on the cross, merrily singing and whistling along with a chorus line of the crucified in a happy-go-lucky song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Religious groups were aghast.
But, no fear, Brian turned out Saturday to be quite a nice lad, after all. Even his mum wasn’t so bad.
The genesis of this sort-of oratorio for Evangelist Monty, four vocal soloists, orchestra, chorus, bagpipers and Bob Dylan impersonator was relatively harmless. Idle happens to be a cousin of Peter Oundjian, the principal conductor of the Toronto Symphony. The oratorio was commissioned to help lead off Toronto’s new June festival, Luminato, last year.
Du Prez, who conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Pacific Chorale in the oratorio at the Bowl, is an honorary Python, having worked on their films and co-written the Broadway hit “Spamalot” with Idle. He is also a fine conductor, as was obvious from a lively reading of the oratorio’s overture, taken from Sousa’s “The Liberty Bell” march (a.k.a. the Monty Python theme).
The oratorio follows the plot of the film, in which a schlump named Brian is mistaken for the Messiah. One-liners get amplified into songs, in which doo-wop and coloratura flourishes get along just fine. Laughs were had. The Republicans were skewered. References to the “Lumberjack Song” were inevitable. But overall irreverence, which Monty Python had elevated to an art form, did not run particularly high.
“Life of Brian” offended in part through context. “Always Look on the Bright Side” is a perfectly innocent tune without its biblical setting. Indeed, it was a perfectly innocent sing-along finale Saturday, with the audience waving its hands at evening’s end.
More curious, though, was Idle’s tendency to sentimentalize. Big Broadway numbers, especially for Brian, had little to distinguish them from conventional inspirational music. They were done really well, and that made them all the more inspirational. The shock value here was directed at those anticipating irreverence.
The one thing this oratorio had going for it was a terrific performance all around. Idle, described as baritone-ish, served as stand-up comedian Evangelist and momentary Dylan impersonator. He’s always been an effective musician, and at 65 he still is.
The four vocal soloists had to do it all -- classical, Broadway, opera, nostalgic pop, Gilbert and Sullivan -- and they pretty much did. William Ferguson, as Brian, was a clean-cut tenor with a clean-cut sound. Shannon Mercer, a shining soprano, was Brian’s vocally flexible girlfriend.
Jean Stilwell, who displayed a burnished mezzo, brought warmth, not nastiness, to the un-virgin mother. Baritone Theodore Baerg had the impossible task of singing like the Commendatore in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and handling John Cleese lines. No one can pull that off.
The Pacific Chorale came to life. The Los Angeles Philharmonic acted as if the players were enjoying themselves. Du Prez doesn’t, as a composer, demonstrate the level of wit of a P.D.Q. Bach, but he can shift gears as fast as anyone, and he brought an impressive level of polish to the enterprise. The excellent Los Angeles Scottish Pipe Band added useful absurdity.