In the Bible’s story of the birth of Jesus in the book of Luke, there’s no mention of how Joseph feels about everything that’s happening. He is pictured as just accepting the circumstances of Mary’s virgin pregnancy. He isn’t given any suspicions, or allowed to ask the obvious questions about Mary’s fidelity.
“The Unusual Tale of Mary & Joseph’s Baby,” currently being produced by River & Rail Theatre Co., explores the dynamics between the couple through a more modern musical-theater telling. The details of the story, however, are straightforward and loyal to the original Bible version.
The play is structured as a whimsical folk-rock musical, with music and lyrics created by Tennessee-based singer-songwriter Don Chaffer and the book written by New York-based playwright Chris Cragin-Day.
River & Rail’s founder and director, Joshua Peterson, believes that stories have the power to influence communities and shape lives.
“Stories have the greatest power when viewed by the most diverse audience,” Peterson said from the stage during his introductions on opening night, when I saw “Unusual Tale” at its temporary home at 119 W. Fifth Ave.
Amelia Peterson directs the diverse cast: Kaylor Demi as Mary, Steven Romero Schaeffer as Joseph, Belén Moyano as Elizabeth and other roles, and Justin Turpin as Benjamin and other roles.
The band has three musicians: guitarist and conductor Adam Whipple, bassist Tony Tortora and drummer Wade Jenkins.
Set designer Brueck Brakefield’s set is a simple two-level platform with what looks like multiple-level laundry lines hung with white linens and a large back-lit white cloth with large, loose side panels that function as both cloud layers and angels’ wings.
Angels appear to Mary as shadow figures on the back-lit panel, while the loose side panels stir the air, adding drama to the scene by revealing and obscuring the angel forms.
In her convincing performance, Demi’s Mary isn’t at all certain about what she is being told. She sings about her suspicions and, most of all, whether Joseph will believe her, especially if she doesn’t quite believe herself. “Joseph’s never gonna believe me,” she sings.
But Moyano’s Elizabeth helps convince her. After all, she has given birth through the blessing of God’s spirit after long years of being old and barren.
Joseph, a carpenter on one of Herod’s construction crews, is continually beaten up by the Romans, who take his tools. In Schaeffer’s portrayal, he isn’t a man who has much confidence in himself, as a result of all the abuse he takes. So, he’s hardly the macho type who questions his own manhood when Mary tells him she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit. He accepts that she hasn’t cheated on him. But there are still moments. “I don’t know that she wants what I want,” he sings. But then he sings about “my part in the story.”
Like other good musicals – this is a very good one – the story is advanced as much by the songs as by the dialogue. It is not a play that comes to a stop at random places to fit a song in.
The instrumentation and the tempos of the music give the play both a sincerity and a lightness.
The experience of “The Unusual Tale of Mary & Joseph’s Baby” is so satisfying, honest and forthright, the run time slips by.
“The Unusual Tale” reopens on Wednesday, Dec. 12, and runs through Sunday, Dec. 23. The entrance to the theatre is at the back of the building at 119 W. Fifth Ave. Ticket prices range from $19 to $40 and may be purchased here.