The York Theatre Company’s limited holiday engagement of The Jerusalem Syndrome – a world-premiere musical comedy by Laurence Holzman and Felicia Needleman (book and lyrics) and Kyle Rosen (music) – takes a look at the eponymous real-life psychological phenomenon that affects approximately 200 tourists per year who visit Israel and come to believe that they are iconic figures from the Old and New Testaments. Directed by Don Stephenson, with music direction by Miles Plant and choreography by Alex Sanchez, a cast of fourteen embraces the delusional role-playing, irreverent laughs, and zany songs and dance, as their characters relate to and learn from the didactic stories of their Biblical alter egos, which give them strength and hope in overcoming what’s wrong in their own lives.
While waiting in line at the airport, the quirky travelers introduce themselves, their motivations for the trip, and their backstories in the opening group number “El-Al Flight.” Central to the comical narrative are the awkward rookie tour guide Eddie Schlosser, whose inexperience and frequent stumbling on the job lead him to imagine himself as Moses, chosen to lead his people through the Red Sea to the Promised Land (though still with an occasional pratfall); Phyllis Feinberg, a childless literature professor in a failing marriage, whose husband Alan spends more time at work and on his cell phone than he does with her, so becomes convinced that she is Abraham’s wife Sarah, who also couldn’t conceive; and gay resort tycoon and furniture designer Charles Jackson, whose churchgoing father didn’t accept him, but hears a choir singing in his mind, believes that he might be Jesus (a carpenter), and begins to perform miracles (the scene of the loaves and fishes is especially funny and the one of him quelling a fight between young Arabs and Jews is particularly timely).
Through two acts and twenty musical numbers, the show combines silly send-ups of old Broadway, vintage Borscht-Belt humor, and high camp, with witty references to the sacred traditions and a positive underlying message of inspiration and enlightenment provided by the Bible. Turning in standout performances in the starring roles are Chandler Sinks as Eddie/Moses, Farah Alvin as Phyllis/Sarah, and Alan H. Green as Charles/Jesus, all bringing the humor and humanity to their troubled characters, for whom the religious psychosis proves to be a healing experience. They also bring their masterful, expressive voices to the songs, including Sinks’ comically distraught apology to his tour group of senior citizens for his ineptitude in “I’m Sorry;” Alvin’s profound feeling of being at home in Jerusalem in her ardent “The Power of Israel;” and Green’s rousing “Daddy Loved Jesus,” backed by an imagined gospel choir, the blockbuster ensemble number “Weirdo in a Bed Sheet,” in which the crowd recognizes his ability and mission to help people, and his insightful and affecting “Is It Crazy?,” which imparts the need to embody the good espoused by Christ without being considered deranged.
Among the notable supporting portrayals are the effectively understated Josh Lamon as Dr. Ben Zion, explaining the medical condition of “The Jerusalem Syndrome” in song; James D. Gish as the hunky and vain daytime actor Mickey Rose and his counterpart the philandering Abraham, who does a duet about “Doing It” with Phyllis/Sarah; and John Jellison, readily distinguishing his roles as Sidney Lowenstein in Eddie’s senior tour group, Father Bernard confronting Charles about his plans for a gay resort with a suggestive statue right across the street from his church, and hospital patient Mr. Sobel, who thinks he’s King David. Rounding out the company are Dana Costello, Scott Cote (in for Jeffrey Schecter at the performance I attended), Danielle Lee James, Karen Murphy, Jennifer Smith, Curtis Wiley, Lenny Wolpe, and Laura Woyasz, and a six-piece orchestra (Aveion Walker, Sean Decker, Kate Amrine, Jessica Gehring, Nicholas Urbanic, and conductor Plant), delivering a variety of musical styles and genres.
Though the story is set “in the not too distant past,” some of the characterizations tend towards annoying old-school stereotypes (the overly loud senior citizens with heavy New York accents; the fan-girl nurse dressed in Barbie pink who is more obsessed with the handsome soap-opera star than she is committed to doing her job with the patients), while others seem more progressive than things would have been (a woman traveling alone, whose husband left her for his secretary, comes to think she is God Herself, and takes control; the priest who objects to the gay resort development then has a completely unexpected change of heart). Of course, it’s a musical comedy, so there’s a happy ending for everyone, including society at large.
James Morgan’s minimalist scenic design sets the stage at the ancient Western Wall of Jerusalem, with two archways, hidden doors that open and close, movable chairs and carts, and projections by Caite Hevner that efficiently change with the scenes, from the airport and hotels to the hospital in which the characters are committed and the locales to which they escape, while allowing enough room for the cast to move, to dance, and in the case of Green, to do cartwheels! Costumes by Fan Zhang amusingly define the distinctive styles of the contemporary personalities and the religious personages whose identities they assume (including a white sheet for Jesus, a mop for the Staff of Moses, and two familiar looks for the two Virgin Marys). It’s all enhanced with Rob Denton’s lighting and sound by Josh Liebert that suit the actions and moods and range from natural to mystical to wildly theatrical.
The York’s world premiere of The Jerusalem Syndrome is a funny and uplifting holiday show that will keep you entertained while reminding you of the key messages inherent in religion and the Bible and the miracles that result from being kind, accepting, generous, and loving. There’s nothing crazy about that!
Running Time: Approximately two hours and five minutes, including an intermission.
The Jerusalem Syndrome plays through Sunday, December 31, 2023, at the York Theatre Company, The Theatre at St. Jean’s, 150 East 76th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $65-95, plus fees), call (212) 935-5820, or go online.