Jesus needs an attitude adjustment. Not only is he faced with the arduous task of transporting people to heaven (from an endless list scrawled on his clipboard), but his father seems to be ignoring him and fails to return his calls. In Eric Bernat and Robin Carrigan's entertaining but sometimes overwrought new play, Jesus and Mandy, a rather uncertain and pessimistic Savior arrives to convey Mandy to the afterlife. However, the feisty, terminally ill 12-year-old will have none of it. Instead, she proposes a different plan: touring the world as "Magical Mandy" with an agenda of "smiles, fun, and hugs." And maybe—just maybe—she will realize her most treasured fantasy and appear with Happy Sheckles on his annual Telethon for Terminal Tots.
From the get-go, we know that Mandy is a goner (the sock puppet doctors at St. Jude's Indigent Hospital tell us so), and the play takes place in limbo, as vividly imagined by set designer Mark T. Simpson and lighting designer Garth Reese. As Mandy's imagination whirls, the stark hospital room becomes a psychedelic playroom framed by shiny geometric clouds, shifting multicolored lights, and a bottomless chest of toys.
Set in the late summer of 1972, this "comedy with dance" becomes an homage to that era. Carrigan's perky choreography is well suited to C.P. Roth's vibrant sound design, and the bouncy 70's music occasions everything from hand-slapping to kicking to leaping into the air. Carrigan is particularly adept at detailing the sort of poker-faced, so-serious-it's-ridiculous dancing that is guaranteed to produce laughter, as in a spastic yet lyrical duet performed by Jesus and Mandy late in the show (feathers and pinecones are used to great effect). Although the dance sequences often arise inexplicably and go on a bit too long, they are easily the most enjoyable—and entertaining—elements of the show.
They also help to disguise the thinness of the plot. Confronted by Jesus, who insists that her time on earth has come to an end, Mandy enlists the help of her imaginary friends, who come to life to help her convince him otherwise. The suspense pivots on whether Mandy will finally agree to move on, but there's simply not enough conflict to captivate an audience for over two hours. Arranged arbitrarily, the episodic events—Jesus will get a makeover, go on trial, and experience a Freaky Friday kind of soul exchange before the night is through—fail to build into a satisfying climax.
The pace alternates between vibrant (the dance sequences) and lethargic (most everything else). Saddled with the bulk of the wordy script, Stephanie Fittro is the show's find as Mandy. A veteran of, appropriately, the national tour of Hairspray, she is a consistently perky and winning presence, and she carries the show triumphantly on her slight frame. From her brown pigtails to her saddle shoes, she puts forth her self-described "Mandy-ness"—an unwavering positive attitude and belief in good. She also manages to spit out dialogue at an amazing speed, including such unlikely phrases as "It's not like he perniciously prevaricated or perpetually perpetrated perjury. Per se."
Co-writer Bernat plays Jesus, and he is appropriately sullen and pessimistic as the forlorn Messiah, if a bit detached and slow in his line delivery. Costume designer Karl A. Ruckdeschel obviously had a ball costuming Mandy's friends, who suggest characters from the Austin Powers films. Sassy Ivy (Afi Ekulona) wears a clingy, metallic-silver bodysuit with red lapels, while good-natured Ned (John Haegele), a Ken-doll knockoff, prances around in a loud arrangement of orange and brown patterns.
In his concept for Beastro (Eddie Cruz), Ruckdeschel's ties to Avenue Q are most obvious (he is currently a costume design associate for that puppet-centric show), and Beastro, ostensibly a stuffed unicorn who is missing a horn, features a fantastical plush animal suit with an orange mane, set off by red sneakers. With no intelligible lines to speak of, Cruz nonetheless makes the most memorable impression of Mandy's three sidekicks—a terrific dancer, he successfully employs his physicality and facial expressions to fashion a captivating and altogether original creature.
Jesus and Mandy boasts some kicky one-liners ("You put the 'mess' in 'Messiah,' " Ivy tells Jesus), striking design elements, and amusing choreography. But the show's punch is buried beneath an overwritten script that makes it difficult—and often confusing—to travel from point A to point B.
Still, director David Drake makes a good case for the rewards of paying attention to Mandy, and as brought to life by Fittro, she is both endearing and sympathetic. With her earnest dedication to show business (the telethon is her dream performance), Mandy's faith in entertainment is transparent, as well as a bit heartbreaking. For in her mind, an audience is the gateway to salvation, and the forlorn Jesus needs only to step on a stage to get his groove back.