Bishop Robert Morlino got off to a rocky start in his new city when he wrote that Madison had "a high comfort level with virtually no public morality." In part, he was reacting to a 2004 StageQ production of Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi, which depicts a gay Jesus. Artistic liberties, it seems, can only stretch so far when religion is involved.
But would Bishop Morlino be offended by Blasphemy!, the new show by local musical-theater team Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn? Probably, though I won't presume to speak for him. Yet I imagine most local theatergoers will find it cheeky rather than truly blasphemous. With song titles like "Disco Wasn't Made in Heaven," you know you're in for an evening of silliness rather than a trenchant argument for or against traditional Christianity.
Given Capellaro and Rohn's track record with shows like Temp Slave and Walmartopia, this broadly comic approach comes as no surprise. However, its success is uneven. Walmartopia, which made its way to New York for the Fringe Festival and then an Off-Broadway run, was more polished and cohesive. Billed as "an unholy trinity of musical comedies," Blasphemy! is essentially three self-contained vignettes. While I mostly enjoyed the first two, things flagged a little post-intermission, during Act III.
Act I, "Rapture," takes place 10 years from now in a dystopian world where Republicans never relinquished power after losing the 2008 election. Instead, we have President Palin (whose accent and perky demeanor are nailed by Corianne Wilson) and the rest of the crew: W., an especially pallid Dick Cheney, Karen Hughes and so forth. We also learn the earthly identity of the Anti-Christ (which I won't reveal here) in the act's strongest number, "I Am the Anti-Christ," sung with crazed élan by Pete Rydberg. (Ironic footnote: Rydberg directed the StageQ production that so angered Bishop Morlino). The song alternates between crooned verses in which his voice quavers a bit, a la Antony and the Johnsons, and an aggressive, chugging chorus.
There are some great moments in Act II, set in Purgatory, during "Medley of the Damned," when Satan (Bonnie Balke) and her sidekick (Christopher Babiarz) torment a tweedy music professor with a truly infernal mishmash of cheesy oompa-pa polka, mindless dance pop and other genres.
Yet Act III, set in Paradise, falls a little flat. While Adam and Eve (Babiarz and Kelly Maxwell) are gutsy performers (hell, you have to be to appear onstage in only flesh-colored undies), the writing in this section simply isn't as good. There's some evolutionary fun with a fish that makes the transition from water to land (a flippery, shiny Rydberg), but also some weak musical numbers, like "Skiddly Dee," in which apes resolve their differences through sex to lyrics like "I'll diddle you, you diddle me." Ugh.
But the positives include Maxwell's lovely singing voice, and I got a kick out of the dark unibrow that matches her cascading raven curls (the thick brow all the better to suggest Eve's true ancestry).
In the end, Blasphemy! is a bit scattered. It's best to think of the whole thing as a work in progress, and to enjoy the funnier moments -- and the fact that the show is a fundraiser for the Bartell Theatre done through the cooperation of all six Bartell member companies. Amen to that.