When a portrayal of Mary Magdalene has her smacking the Christ character in the face — before she knows who he is — you know you're in for a non-traditional version of a well-known Biblical tale.
In "The Magdalene," an earnest, beautifully-sung musical that opened off-Broadway Tuesday night, the old story of Christ's popularity causing his downfall with local religious and political authorities is updated to include a major role for Mary Magdalene.
Performing at The Theatre at St. Clement's, the spirited production has lovely music by James Olm, with book and lyrics by Olm and J. C. Hanley. The story is inspired by the somewhat controversial Gnostic Gospels of Mary and Thomas, which were not included in the original Christian Bible. These writings elevate Mary Magdalene from her Biblical role of prostitute to the level of Christ's highest apostle — and wife.
The beautifully sung music infuses the action with a feeling of ceremony and reverence. The song stylings are often hymnal, with themes that match the narrative and enhance the suspense, as Mary's spiritual progress is challenged by repressive authorities and the disciples of Yeshua, an Aramaic name for Jesus the Nazarene.
Lindsie VanWinkle is a charming, tomboyish Mary Magdalene, who "meets cute" with Yeshua (a beatific Shad Olsen) by hitting him in the face when she thinks he's a mere shepherd insulting her. Quickly getting over the fact that she actually hit him, Yeshua finds Mary's feisty attitude quite delightful.
After Mary clocks him, she relents and shares with him her questioning of God's teachings that apparently put women down. Yeshua welcomes and encourages her questioning, and she begins to realize that everything supposedly ordained by God has been filtered through men.
The focus of the plot is Mary's spiritual development, as the small-town girl travels with a group of pilgrims to Jerusalem, gets into trouble by entering a Jewish temple (forbidden turf for women) and challenging the authorities. When she finally meets up with Yeshua again, he welcomes her into his inner circle, eventually urging her to preach as his equal.
Angelically-voiced Faith Engen is perfectly cast as The Little Girl, Mary's spiritual guide. Engen's lovely, clear voice is showcased in her beautiful refrain "Set Me As a Seal" and in the powerful "I Am With You," sung together with VanWinkle and Olsen. When Mary is empowered by Yeshua to baptize people, much of the cast joyously joins in a rollicking, gospel-tinged number, "The Waters Of The River."
Eugene Barry-Hill is a real scene-stealer with his gleeful portrayal of Pilatus, the all-powerful Roman ruler of Jerusalem. Pilatus relishes his power, but prefers to delegate the messy stuff, like murdering "heretics and trouble-makers." He airily tells Mary, "It's amazing how effective it is. Slaughter the believers and you slaughter the belief."
Evangelia Kingsley is affecting in a small but pivotal role as Rivkah, a midwife and mentor to Mary. The only wrong note in the production is the odd conceit of using grown women to portray a flock of sheep.
And if your vision of Christ doesn't include seeing him passionately kiss a woman, you'll have to shut your eyes once or twice, but otherwise, violence and lust are discreetly handled.
The musical's uplifting message of empowerment for women, and the idea of putting some of the "her" back into history, will resonate with many people.