There’s nothing messy about Messy Messiah, the tongue-in-cheek operatic holiday revue from Heartbeat Opera. Everything about this uproarious show is meticulously crafted and presented with first-rate skill: the glorious singing and dancing; Daniel Schlosberg’s wondrous musical arrangements of winter-themed operatic arias, selections from Handel’s Messiah, and visitations from Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky; and other bits of musical culture and mayhem.
For obvious reasons, the troupe couldn’t stage its annual extravaganza last year. It returned with a sweet vengeance.
The show begins with a brilliantly clever pastiche of an Overture. As in other productions, Heartbeat Opera’s modus operandi is to re-set classics in small-ensemble formats with fresh dramatic interpretations. Messy Messiah posits an accomplished tenor (a fabulous Elliott Page) bored at the prospect of going through the motions of yet another Christmastime performance of Handel’s Messiah. His wish for something new bursts into fruition, presumably from his own subconscious. Its first flowering is his own (already show-stopping) rendition of “Comfort Ye” and “Every Valley” from that overdone oratorio. The rest of the cast arrives one by one, singing varied arias while garbed in Fabian Aguilar’s fanciful, superbly fashioned costumes.
The show’s visual riches go well beyond costumes. Eamon Foley contributes inspired choreography for Jourdan Epstein, who dances traditional ballet and more to music from the Nutcracker; performs an eye-popping number that turns a Fiddler on the Roof classic on its head; and plays the central role in a mini-drama that riffs on the COVID-19 pandemic with welcome hilarity.
The seamless show never lets up. One highlight is Handel’s “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” featuring bass John Taylor Ward’s smooth, woody singing and silvery solo work from trumpeter Evan Honse. Ward is also physically and vocally compelling in the aria “The Cold Song” from Purcell’s King Arthur. Mezzo-soprano Alissa Anderson transfixes in her solos, including the haunting “Must the Winter Come So Soon” from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa. Soprano Samarie Alicea is a coloratura delight in the bubbly “Look at How I Look” from Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus and her other turns, while tenor Page takes the lead again in a surprise romp of a selection I won’t give away. The clever arrangements also include subtle backing vocals.
The band is as superb as the singers, in everything from Handel’s triumphant harmonies to Schlosberg’s fascinating arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s dances. A passage of “Winter” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons races impishly by in 7/8 time. But the fine points of the arranger’s work (Schlosberg also plays piano and harpsichord) are too numerous to mention; it’s not an exaggeration to say that he is the voice of Heartbeat Opera as much as the talented singers are.
As we stagger through our second consecutive holiday season fearing deadly disease and distrusting our compatriots, a gust of razzle-dazzle like this is just what’s needed to spark a flicker of optimism. If such talent and creative spirit can thrive amid a subdued and pessimistic zeitgeist, there’s hope for us yet.
A livestream of Heartbeat Opera’s Messy Messiah is available online through Sunday, December 19. Their Fidelio is scheduled for February 2022 performances in New York City, California, and Arizona, followed by the multimedia Quando in NYC in April.