River and Rail Theatre Co. Debuts New Musical
From Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to Jesus Christ Superstar and The Cotton Patch Gospel, stage writers and musicians alike seem to enjoy the challenge of re-imagining Bible stories. It’s quite a task to bring new depth and color to a familiar narrative without taking any meaning away from the original story, and The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby achieves this goal with great success.
From the opening number, “I’m Just a Jew,” to the closing song, “Walk Through the Sea,” I was transported into a story over two thousand years old, all the while feeling like I’d never left my own neighborhood. Joseph and Mary struck me as a man and woman I could’ve met last week, which is to say they were nothing like the faded flannelgraph characters I remember from Sunday school. Holy Mother Mary actually has a voice in this story, and she’s not afraid to use it. She’s more than just a humble servant and a sacred vessel, she’s a devoted woman who often wrestles with God’s plans, a thoughtful wife who sometimes argues with her husband, and a loving mother who still loses patience with her newborn baby. And the noble Joseph is a complex man who hungers for more than the simple life he knows, who’s funny, hard-working, and admirable, even though he struggles to do what he knows is right.
There are several other roles in the play, like Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, a lonely shepherd, a mysterious magus, and an angel of the Lord, to name a few, yet they’re all presented to the audience via the two remaining actors in the cast. With creative storytelling and a rustic, yet innovative stage setting, these characters are brought to life with honesty and humor, as well as beauty, drama, and wonderful music.
NYC-based playwright Chris Cragin-Day wrote the entertaining dialogue for this play, and Don Chaffer, frontman of the band Waterdeep, wrote the songs–music that’s mostly folky, while occasionally venturing into some jazz and spiritual tunes throughout the tale.
I took my teenage daughter to see the play on Saturday afternoon, and we were both impressed with its production, performance, and writing. Praise from an apathetic teenager is quite an accomplishment, let me tell you. My nearly fourteen-year-old began her current love affair with musicals last summer when she saw the 2012 film version of Les Miserables. Her most recent obsession is, of course, Hamilton, so she was thrilled to see a racially diverse cast breathe new life into this beloved story.
There’s nothing like sharing tears and laughter with someone you love, while being engaged in the most important story you’ve ever heard. I’m excited that a new theater company has come to Knoxville, with a mission to make its art accessible to all people, regardless of their backgrounds or income levels. I look forward to seeing more works from River and Rail Theatre, and I hope you local readers will go see this folk musical while it’s still playing in town this week. To purchase your tickets, click on this link.