Christ’s last mortal days are a “strange thing, mystifying” in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1970 Jesus Christ Superstar. But as conceived by director Joe Calarco in Signature Theatre’s new production, they’re a little stranger and more mystifying than they need to be — that despite generally solid performances and an excellent musical team.
Nicholas Edwards is a strong, complex Jesus. He mines the role’s prickly, peevish elements, aided by falsetto bursts that strike alarm in his disciples and the audience. The dramatic and musical apex is “Gethsemane,” which swells from pathos to punch. But although this Jesus has pipes, his pride not only puts off Pilate, it somewhat alienates the audience too. It’s an intriguing dramaturgic question: Need Christ be emotionally involving? Need he draw us in? This isn’t your soft, sweet, shaggy savior. He’s easier to admire than to love.
Mary is to some degree defined by her ballad, and not just because “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” got the most radio play and cover versions back in the day. Natascia Diaz, who has a tender presence and a well-trained voice, makes it her own, but a little too much her own. She saunters into the song with a weirdly halting rubato opening, and adds too much ornamentation. This simple declaration of overpowering devotion doesn’t need to be embroidered. Diaz fares better with “Everything’s Alright.” But as with Edwards’s Jesus, there’s something a bit chilly about her performance. Their doomed togetherness should make us weep but for whatever stage-chemical reason here it doesn’t.
From the original JCS album onward, the role of Judas, in both its emotional and its musical range, has courted vocal abuse. To save it requires not just a carefully implemented head voice but a rare gift for rock ’n’ roll understatement. Ari McKay Wilford employs neither and, while he’s persuasive in his acting, his singing is abrasively shouty and flat.
Sherri L. Edelen has boisterous fun as the crowd-pleasing King Herod, rendering the monarch as sort of a sassy, strutting Judge Judy as she dismisses the case of yet another seeming gadfly with a messiah complex. The high-priest duo of Caiaphas (Thomas Adrian Simpson) and Annas (Sam Ludwig) is also striking, Simpson’s resonant low baritone a cross between Darth Vader and Cookie Monster, complemented by Ludwig’s officious high tenor.
Bobby Smith’s unflappable but wary Pilate impressively evolves, according to the script’s exacting demands, from stern show-tune gentility to demented screaming rock villainy. The ensemble, too, is first rate; Awa Sal Secka as Simon and Michael J. Mainwaring as Peter particular standouts.
closes July 2, 2017
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All this plays out on Lucciana Stecconi’s versatile arena-staged multi-platform set. What throws a wrench into it is Calarco’s broader conception of this pioneering rock opera. Early on, for instance, Zacharay G. Borovay’s projections — like “Last Supper” painting details during the last supper — look a little tacky and anachronistic. Later, the projections are downright distracting and heavy handed: not only news pics of anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant demonstrators but a shot of Hitler at a rally. These appear as Jesus asks God’s forgiveness toward his followers gone astray, for they know not what they do. We get it. If Christ knew, say, that Judas would betray him and Peter would deny knowledge of him, then why couldn’t he see millennia ahead to all the warped ways his name would be applied to dastardly as well as divine deeds? Still, the projections detract from the disciples’ close fellowship and the sadness of its demise.
Frank Labovitz’s costumes too are disorienting. They are true to the production’s billing as “sleek and modern,” but while the sleek works the modern doesn’t particularly. It’s true that Rice and Webber themselves, beyond the very premise of rocking the Gospels, included some contemporary riffs — among them the crowd asking Jesus reporter-like questions about what he’ll do next given the whole dismal Pilate situation. And an utterly ballsy production — probably unwisely so — could go contemporary to the hilt, dressing Mary up like a Seventh Avenue hooker, sitting Pilate behind a corporate desk, and so on. But under Calarco, Labovitz goes two-thirds of the way there, stranding us in a puzzling Holy Land whose inhabitants appear outfitted from a discount outlet offering Brooks Brothers suits, Gap and Aeropostale, Brooklyn boho weekend wear, and a few La Jolla surf duds as well. That King Herod is played by a woman is not disruptive in the slightest; that she is dressed from what looks like the Chico’s catalogue is. As with the projections, the outfits, though handsome and no doubt costly, are head scratchers. Why not let very-late BC couture dictate the look?
Karma Camp’s choreography, on the other hand, is a treat, particularly in the freewheeling first-act “Hosanna” and the vaudevillian second-act “King Herod’s Song.” And the band, under musical director William Yanesh, was jamming — among high points was Yanesh’s own funky-gospel keyboards in “What’s the Buzz.” Jason Lyons’s lighting is smart and powerful, from its moody textures to its deific narrow bright spot treatments.
While one commends the show’s spirit and overall caliber, its message is marred by several conceptual and musical missteps.
Jesus Christ Superstar . Lyrics by Tim Rice; Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber; directed by Joe Calarco; choreography by Karma Camp; assistant choreographer, Kristen Sandler; music direction by William Yanesh; scenic design by Luciana Stecconi; lighting design by Jason Lyons; costume design by Frank Labovitz; fight choreography by Casey Kaleba; projection design by Zachary G. Borovay; New York casting by Laura Stancyzk, CSA; production stage manager, Kerry Epstein; assistant stage manager, Karen Currie; production assistant, Joey Blakely. Cast: Natascia Diaz, Mary Magdalene; Sherri Edelen, King Herod; Nicholas Edwards, Jesus; Sam Ludwig, Annas; Michael J. Mainwaring, Peter; Awa Sal Secka, Simon Zealotes; Thomas Adrian Simpson, Caiaphas; Bobby Smith, Pontius Pilate; Ari McKay Wilford, Judas; Vincent Kempski, David Landstrom, Calvin McCullough, Jobari Parker-Namdar, Chris Sizemore, Harrison Smith, Solomon Parker III, Korinn Walfall, and Kara-Tameika Watkins, ensemble.
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