Yo! Check it out, y’all. There’s a new musical in da hood, and it ain’t no Phantom of the Opera. It’s based on an age-old Biblical story, and samples music from Mozart to Eminem, but Job: The Hip-Hop Musical is anything but played out.
Back for a triumphant remount at the Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space, Job is the brainchild of 22-year-old Montrealers Eli Batalion and Jerome Saibil, and was the hit of the Fringe circuit in 2002. While the idea of merging the Bible with hip-hop may seem dubious, Batalion and Saibil, who not only wrote the book and libretto, but also direct, produce, and perform every role, do more than make it work. The two long-time friends and collaborators are uber-talented, making the one-hour show an innovative blend of hilarity, clever storytelling, and rapid-fire verbal performance.
MC Cain (Saibil) and MC Abel (Batalion) lay out the story—the Biblical Job, a loyal believer whose faith was tested by God, is transplanted into a modern-day corporate setting and becomes “Job Lowe” (ha!), manager of acclaimed Hoover Records. When company president J. Hoover is urged by nefarious VP Lou Saphire to find out if Job is truly a loyal employee, Job loses first his salary and benefits and then his job. Of course, all ends well, but not before the poor protagonist struggles to remain loyal, contends with a lineup of fellow employees who accuse him of embezzlement and finally swallows his pride and apologizes to Hoover for cursing his name.
Bad things happen to a good person, but there’s a happy ending—what’s so brilliant about that? The ingenuity of the production lies in the hands of Batalion and Saibil. The two work flawlessly together, bouncing energy off each other and switching characters seamlessly without losing a beat. There are eight characters in the show and each member of the duo play them all, often trading roles in mid-sentence without even a costume change to back them up. Astounding physicality and elastic voices allowed the two performers to pull it off—the switcheroo trick had the potential to be distracting, but instead, it adds an element of surprising coherence to the show as a whole.
Job’s extraneous simplicity is part of its genius. Batalion and Saibil performed wearing Adidas-style track suits and black doo rags, and the set was bare save for a pyramid of water bottles and two towels, which served as the only costume enhancements. This not only makes the production extremely easy to tour, but it also puts the focus where it belongs—on the performers and their story. The music, an eclectic blend of beats and sampled tunes ranging from Bizet and Mozart to present-day hits by Outkast, Eve, and Mary J. Blige, fit perfectly with the whirling dervish of couplets that make up the lyrics, rhyming words such as “scientology,” “epistemology” and “apology” with nary a glitch.
Job: The Hip-Hop Musical not only gives us two extraordinary new creative forces in Batalion and Saibil, but it also provides a new form of theatre—a musical for our time. If you missed it this time around, chillax. Job II hits the Toronto Fringe Festival this summer, and MCs Cain and Abel will be at it again, spinning their unique brand of theatre magic in a sequel. If it’s even half as good as its predecessor, it will undoubtedly and deservedly be a smash hit. I can’t wait.