When composer Anna Miriam Brown began working on His Story: The Musical at age 16, she didn’t know how to play a chord. Still, with help from her sister on a child’s keyboard, and inspired by Hamilton and what she calls divine intervention, Brown managed to write the show, then record and release it as a soundtrack.
The next miracle is that she attracted a Broadway producer and deep-pocketed backers, who have brought her musical about the life of Jesus to a custom-built tent under the Ferris wheel at The Colony’s shiny Grandscape dining and entertainment center.
Having premiered earlier this month, it’s scheduled to run through at least early September, a rather long engagement for theater outside of New York.
On opening night, you could see why Brown, now 22, found support. The homeschooled daughter of Christian missionaries, she has fashioned a credible narrative from the New Testament, with a fair number of catchy songs and moments of dramatic tension. His Story also features clever design elements and a cast of tuneful young performers, many from the area.
Brown had help from the aptly named lead producer Bruce Lazarus and director Jeff Calhoun (Disney’s Newsies, Grey Gardens), both of whom have been nominated for Tony Awards. Lazarus told Religion News Service that the production came together in a little over a year and raised $7.5 million in a very short time. The top backers are Willie and Korie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame.
New songs have been added since the soundtrack was released in 2019 while others have been cut.
Like Hamilton, much of His Story is rapped while also featuring musical-theater balladry. Some of the lyrics are delivered as spoken word. The actors wear contemporary street clothes accented with a nod to the ancient. The dialogue is modern, as when Jesus says, “I’ve got to talk to my dad.”
The show does make some odd creative choices. Jesus (quietly charismatic Max Kuenzer) is never raised up on a cross. Instead, planks of wood are placed in a cross shape on the stage, and he lies down on them. No nails are used and there are only the briefest of hammering sounds. It’s the family version, not Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
In contrast, the suicide of Judas (imposing Richard Chaz Gomez) that follows is dramatically rendered under red lighting as a long rope is slowly dragged across the stage until the noose at its end is revealed.
The production is in-the-round, the circular mock-stone stage surrounded by a hexagonal red-velvet seating area for 1,300 souls. There is neither a typical set nor proscenium. Instead, locations like desert dunes and a starry night sky are suggestively projected onto the ceiling. Light boxes are used as seats for some of the characters or stacked as a podium for Pontius Pilate (Caleb Bermejo).
Occasionally, a round platform rises from the middle of the stage, as when Jesus addresses his flock. A staircase at the back of the tent also serves as a setting for the action. A light bank made to look like a thorny crown hovers overhead, but its eventual lowering is an anticlimactic throwaway.
His Story opens with some set-up scenes, including a distraught Mother Mary (Jataria Heyward) and angry, suspicious Joseph (Logan Dolence) wondering how she got pregnant before the angel Gabriel (Carlos Gutierrez), who acts as narrator, intervenes.
One of the best early scenes, to the poppy number “Do My Eyes Deceive Me,” has a comic tone as Jesus teaches a frustrated Peter (Bryan Munar) how to fish. Then comes another memorable song, “Let Me Be Broken,” an anthemic confession by Mary Magdalene (Lily Gast).
Sitting in the audience, composer Brown and a group of her young supporters cheered at the end of almost every tune, including the dark ones, creating a kind of awkward Jesus-mania.
His Story is highly episodic, so it eventually becomes a race to the finish everyone knows is coming. But how Brown’s unlikely musical gets there is a fascinating study in the miracle of theatrical production.