Review: ‘Not the Messiah With Eric Idle’

Occasional Monty Pythoner Eric Idle and composer-conductor John Du Prez go back about 30 years, having collaborated first on Monty Python’s "The Life of Brian" and, more recently, on the worldwide hit musical "Spamalot."

Occasional Monty Pythoner Eric Idle and composer-conductor John Du Prez go back about 30 years, having collaborated first on Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” and, more recently, on the worldwide hit musical “Spamalot.” With a slight push from the commissioning Luminato Festival in Toronto, they returned to the scene of their first crime last year with “Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy),” a “comic oratorio” based upon “The Life of Brian” which arrived a bit over a year later in expanded form — with a fireworks chaser — at the Hollywood Bowl Friday night.

Have Idle and Du Prez gone to the well one time too many? Not really, for while the 75-minute piece contains several fond references for Python fans — including a paraphrase of the notorious “Lumberjack Song” — Du Prez has come up with a mostly new score.

Furthermore, the main point here is a satire on oratorio form — in particular, the perennial pleasures of Handel’s “Messiah.” In doing so, Idle and Du Prez are continuing a fine old British tradition of classical send-ups dating back to Gilbert and Sullivan and, even more pertinently, the uproarious Hoffnung Festivals of the 1950s.

Everyone was set up onstage oratorio-style in exact proportions — a mezzo-soprano (Jean Stilwell), tenor (William Ferguson), soprano (Shannon Mercer) and baritone (Theodore Baerg) lined up before the non-plussed Los Angeles Philharmonic with the clearly enunciating Pacific Chorale in back. Most of the time, everyone played it with a straight face, letting even the silliest of lyrics flip right by.

Du Prez’s score, whose roving style he accurately labels “iPod Shuffle,” has some timebombs imbedded within. You think he is writing serious songs in a banal popera manner, and things suddenly make a turn toward the loony bin: “I Want to Change the World” breaks into rockin’ gospel, and a bagpipes band eventually takes over “You’re the One.”

Sometimes the detonation takes a while; you have to wait a bit too long for “The Final Song” to undermine its Lloyd Webber-ish rhetoric. And there are only a few direct homages to the model, with “We Love Sheep” the most obvious (a reference to “Messiah’s” “All We Like Sheep”).

Idle himself is the wildcard — acting as narrator, singer and Bob Dylan impersonator. He was marvelously charming and mischievous, pulling off the funniest bit by disrupting the mariachi-tinged “Find Your Dream” with a keyboard-operated leaf blower (ah, but Hoffnung beat Idle to the punch when he introduced a vacuum cleaner as a soloist).

The piece is inconsistent; there could have been more sustained hilarity, and the most memorable thing in the score remains the classic, chipper holdover from the film, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” But Gerard Hoffnung may have found some worthy successors here.

Not the Messiah With Eric Idle

Hollywood Bowl, 17,373 seats, $114 top


Presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. Performers: Eric Idle, Shannon Mercer, Jean Stilwell, William Ferguson, Theodore Baerg, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Pacific Chorale conducted by John Du Prez, Los Angeles Scots Pipe Band. Reviewed Aug. 1, 2008.
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