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Bring in da Noise 

Art Within dramatizes birth of Handel's 'Messiah'

Nearly inescapable this time of year, Handel's "Messiah" comes in near the top of classical music's all-time hit parade. But Tim Slover's play Joyful Noise, currently being staged by Art Within, asserts that the now-canonized composition originated on the cutting edge.

An oratorio by Handel's librettist Charles Jennens based on passages of scripture, "Messiah" was originally conceived as having no overture or plot, operatic innovations during its composition in the early 1740s. Before its London debut, the piece faced religious opposition strikingly similar (at least in the play's presentation) to the reception of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ.

Surrounding the creation of an instantly identifiable piece of music with historical gossip and backstage squabbling, Joyful Noise offers a juicy approach to the classics. But Slover's script can't live up to its many ambitions and the Art Within production falls prey to its faults, despite some lively performers and intriguing notions.

The play begins with a complicated muddle that introduces such crucial characters as Handel (Tony Brown) and Jennens (Peter Hauenstein), but it focuses on scandal-plagued singer Susannah Cibber (Terri Measal Adams). Abbreviated scenes, a surreal dream and courtroom voice-overs (suggesting a feed from an 18th century Court TV) bombard us with Cibber's backstory, and it takes time to figure it out, or why we should care.

Whenever the temperamental Handel takes the stage, things grow much more compelling, as when he bitches out his London audience at the end of an ill-received opera. Losing popular and financial support, Handel is also falling out of favor with King George II (Matthew Ireland), despite being a fellow German. Their Teutonic accents serve the play well, as the sequences with Ireland's plummy, crafty King and Brown's bigger-than-life (in every respect) composer prove the evening's most clever and effective.

His career on the skids, Handel considers returning to his native Germany, but finds unexpected inspiration in Jennens' libretto. Composing and staging "Messiah" will see a welter of complications, including the sneaky plotting of Bishop Egerton (Scott Fugate) and the risk of public hostility to Cibber's performance in the piece.

Joyful Noise bears certain similarities to Amadeus, as each is concerned with court politics, ecstatic music and the private lives of famous artists. But in comparison, Noise has much more clunky construction with a plot that seems to take forever to advance. Directing the play, Bryan Coley doesn't help clarify matters, as the text shifts from shameless pathos to broad comedy to intellectual argument without smooth adjustments of tone.

A subplot about rival sopranos, with Cibber facing the resentment of Kitty Clive (Kim Bowers-Rheay), proves too self-consciously humorous, with arguments over the disbursement of arias and a full-blown catfight. More successful is Wesley Usher's portrayal of Handel's patron Mary Pendarves, who combines exquisite breeding with alarming dedication.

Period pieces need credible dialogue, and Slover's tends to strain to sound authentic, as in lines like, "One feels a trifle ... trifled with" or the way that everyone without fail likens good singers to angels (no other simile seems available). But some one-liners hit home, such as Handel's remark: "Madam, I never make sport -- I am German." Slover effectively conveys the characters' differing passions about the music itself.

Each production of Joyful Noise features a different local choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus at the climax, a clever way to draw people who might not otherwise attend a play. But instructing the audience, before the curtain, to follow the tradition of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus, seems a lame means of enforcing audience participation.

Art Within's artistic mission is to present relevant plays that speak to a Christian perspective, and fortunately Joyful Noise addresses religious subjects without proselytizing. The church establishment is clearly on the wrong side, but the excerpts from "Messiah" speak for themselves, and a spiritual message runs quietly through the action. One wishes that all of Joyful Noise's comic and melodramatic subplots were so subtle.

Joyful Noise plays through Dec. 23 at the 14th Street Playhouse, 173 14th St., with performances at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. $18-$20. 404-733-5000.

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