It is a story so familiar it’s almost clichéd: girl meets boy, boy asks girl to marry him, girl gets impregnated by God, and a baby boy is born in a stable. It has been told thousands of times, from the biblical to first graders dressed as donkeys, and yet fundamentally the story remains the same. There is no room at the inn, the angels tell the shepherds, the three wise men give gifts… but what happened before Gabriel came along, and who are these people called Mary and Joseph anyway, and why aren’t they at home snuggled in their cozy bed instead of on a donkey when Mary is so close to having the baby believed to be the chosen son of the Lord? Perhaps at one point in the past I asked these questions, only to be told that no one knew the answers, or that that part was not important, and I began to take the official story as gospel, without much thought behind it.
Nativity, the rock musical now playing at Saint Matthew’s United Church in Halifax does not simply attempt to integrate rock music into a traditional tale, but instead creates its own narrative, offering fresh perspectives on characters and circumstances thousands have taken for granted for centuries. It sounds like a recipe for corny modernization and campy humor, but the playwright, Reverend Betsy Hogan skillfully maneuvers her way around the potential for cheese and instead roots the story firmly in two clearly developed, strongly likeable characters and an extremely specific historical backdrop.
Mary, played by the charming Nicole Moore, is a vivacious, yet dreamy young girl with a certain Disney Princess-like quality about her as she dreams of something greater than the ordinary and longs for a world that doesn’t involve being a second class citizen subjected to the brutal whims of constant Roman guards. She has a mother and father who care about her while trying to ground her fanciful dreams in bleak reality. She must be a good Jewish girl- obey her father, find a husband and respect the hierarchy she was born into.
Joseph is filled with angst and helplessness as he is ensnared within the confines of his world. He has hope for the future he is forging with Mary and the love beginning to develop between them. He is understandably enraged when Mary becomes pregnant with another man’s son, but struggles in attempt to be a good person, while still maintaining boundaries for the woman who has apparently betrayed him.
It is interesting that Nativity would develop out of a Christian church as its story surpasses biblical doctrine and portrays the bible’s most famous parents as people, with hopes and fears and a range of emotions not always equated to the divine. The families are distinctly Jewish, a subtle reminder during the holiday season of the tight interconnections between these two faiths. The rock music, songs such as, “Down on the Corner” by CCR and “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty evolve from the action like in any good book musical, without seeming too hokey or contrived. The highlights include a beautiful performance as Mary’s lovingly concerned father by Scott Murphy, Mike Tremblay’s rock star Joseph, Murphy and Tremblay’s show stopping performance of “Under Pressure,” and Roy Ellis’ hilarious nod to Jesus Christ Superstar’s Herod’s Harem with “Love Shack.” The direction by Jolene Pattison is well suited to the small playing space. Pattison wisely keeps a core ensemble in almost constant motion throughout so there is always something interesting to watch and the dancing feels consistent with the world she has created.
Most importantly, however, Nativity feels like a labor of love. The joy of the performers pour off the stage and into the audience. The sheer fun of the process is apparent in smiling faces and shining eyes. There is a spark at Saint Matthew’s that goes beyond a night at the theatre, and the monotony one can find in the professional world, the excitement of creating something new while making a difference in the community is strongly present. The profits from this musical go toward the church’s outreach program, helping those in need in our community.
With its mixture of ambition and faith, Saint Matt’s Church is emerging as an exciting source of Canadian Theatre creativity in Halifax. Nativity shows great promise as a musical. More dialogue and a tighter correlation between the book and the lyrics could help solidify Mary and Joseph’s journeys throughout without relying so heavily on convenience and prior knowledge of the story. As a World Premiere of a new Canadian musical, this show is fraught with potential.
All and all in the here and now, Nativity is both heartwarming and thought provoking. Whether you believe the story to be fact or fiction, this musical tells the story of a girl and a boy you thought you knew, and leaves you asking the questions you may have forgotten were important when they weren’t answered when you were a kid. Who were these people, Mary and Joseph? We probably won’t ever know for sure, but in this show it is the array of possibilities which make it so compelling and exciting.
Nativity is playing at Saint Matthew’s Church on Barrington Street, December 14th at 7:00pm and December 15th at 2:00pm and 7:00pm. For tickets call 902 423-9209