“A.D. 16:” A riotous world premiere musical about crushing on a 16-year-old Jesus

Mary Magdalene falls hard for 16-year-old Jesus in the world premiere of A.D. 16.

Courtesy of Broadwayworld.com.

Mary Magdalene falls hard for 16-year-old Jesus in the world premiere of “A.D. 16.”

Nicole Kowalewski, Arts & Culture Editor

It is not easy being a girl in Nazareth, especially when you are new in town and rumored to be cursed with seven demons. Mary Magdalene is having a hard time adjusting to her new home…until she meets the boy next door, the teenage son of a carpenter. He is handsome, sensitive, different from any boy she has ever known…and he also happens to be Jesus. Talk about star-crossed.

“A.D. 16” is a witty, contemporary and wholly unique world premiere musical that explores the question of what it was like to be an outspoken woman in Biblical times. Mary Magdalene, as the most-referenced woman in the Bible (other than the Virgin Mary herself), serves as our headstrong protagonist for a look into the lost teenage years of Jesus Christ. By imposing modern language, music, and clever pop culture references on a Biblical setting, “A.D. 16” depicts a world where the universal compassion of Jesus of Nazareth’s teachings was not only shocking but often illegal. Unsurprisingly, independent teen Mary Magdalene, shunned for her refusal to accept women’s “place” in society, falls head over heels for the radical boy next door. With tongue-in-cheek humor and plenty of dramatic ironies, “A.D. 16” brings a whole new meaning to “love thy neighbor.”

The musical, hosted by Olney Theatre Center in Maryland, stars young powerhouse Phoenix Best, who theatre fans will recognize from Broadway’s hit “Dear Evan Hansen,” as Mary Magdalene. Best brings levity, grace, and heart to the character with soaring vocals and snappy line delivery that draw the audience to Mary from the moment she steps onstage. Ben Fankhauser delights as a sweet, hippie-esque Jesus, and Alan H. Green shines as Mary’s hapless but loving father, Jacob. The ensemble, too, breathes vivacious life into each scene and foot-tapping musical number, doing full justice to Cinco Paul’s incredible score– an electric fusion of R&B, hip hop, gospel and soul. The juxtaposition of contemporary musical theatre against the backdrop of a deeply religious town 2000 years in the past provides ample opportunity for both hilarity and poignance.

“A.D. 16,” in spite of the fun it pokes at stiff, antiquated religious standards, was written by two people of faith; Bekah Brunstetter, the show’s playwright, and the aforementioned Cinco Paul, whose idea sparked the entire project. Far from lending the musical a sanctimonious, haughty tone, however, this sensibility plays in the story’s favor. Brunstetter and Paul do not shy away from religion’s shortcomings and humbly acknowledge hypocrisies through humor and what often amounts to self-deprecation. Even Jesus is “still working on it.” So, rest assured, you do not have to be religious to enjoy this show– far from it. No matter how, where, or whom you worship (if at all), this show is for you, choosing to focus on a universal quest for compassion and selflessness rather than judgment. The theater, full of young and old alike, veritably shook with both laughter and applause. This, as a show with such a Biblical (if completely fabricated) premise, is perhaps the greatest achievement of “A.D. 16.”

“A.D. 16” played its last performance at Olney Theatre Center on Sunday, March 20. The creators hope to mount a New York production in the future.