Ben Hur – The Musical
Directed by Amick Byram
Book by Chip Hand
Music and Lyrics by Paul Johnson and Roland Owen
Starring Robert Patteri, Stephen Jones, Cassie LaRocca
Trapped in a tuneless musical, boyhood friends Judah Ben-Hur (Patteri) and Messala (Jones) swear eternal fealty to one another. Duty pulls them apart, one to lead Jerusalem’s wealthiest family, the other to the Roman Army fast track. Military bureaucracy clashes with Jewish hegemony when they meet 15 years later as Rome subdues the feisty Hebrews. Judah ends up a galley slave, while Messala opens an Italian Mafia franchise in Jerusalem. In this non-gripping adventure, Judah’s Sea Escape lands him as top chariot coach of the Empire, racing Messala for revenge and a huge slug of cash. Vengeance is mine, sayeth Judah Ben-Hur, running his ex-buddy into turn 3 of this bizarre Disney animatronic chariot race. Meanwhile, Judah’s mom and sister catch leprosy, probably from a Roman toilet seat. Oy Vey! What to do? Jesus shleps his cross to Golgatha. Divine omniscience limits his spoken words to a single “thank you.” If you slept though Sunday School, you won’t find out what he did to annoy the Romans in this show. Deus Ex Machina, Judah remembers Jesus cures leprosy in his spare time, and catches him at that awkward moment when they crucify him, hoping for one last miracle. Leprosy cured, but not even Christ Himself can raise this musical corpse from the grave. One last sappy ballad, and exit stage left.
Strong, competent vocal work, stunning sets, superb lighting, and music fail to redeem this vaguely religious experience from the eternal damnation of no dramatic climax. Will Judah race for revenge against Messala, or will he forgive and forget as Esther (LaRocca) begs? Will Messala forgive Judah for a crippling accident, even though no one was wearing a seat belt? Can the camel embarrass the stage manager? And exactly what part of the Torah prohibits chariot racing, anyway? These question flit across our minds as we hope for at least one memorable song. No such luck.
For a production with a strong religious basis, there was no attempt to explain the motivations or actions in terms of faith or belief. Some details of the Jewish faith were muddled or stereotypical, and anyone not familiar with Judeo-Christian beliefs stayed that way. The sum effect was that of a high school production performed by a really competent cast on a really big budget. If you gave this troupe a decent script, they could make magic. As it stands, they don’t make bupkas.