Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Loosely based on the final days of Jesus of Nazareth, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar became a worldwide phenomenon in the early 1970s. It started out as a 1970 concept recording before ending up on Broadway in 1971. A movie, numerous West End productions, tours, and three Broadway revivals followed. With minimal dialogue, the sung-through show follows the Gospels' accounts of the last week in Jesus' life. The musical swiftly covers many well-known events in Christ's life, from Jesus' entry into Jerusalem to Mary Magdalene's and the apostles' devotion to him, the last supper, Jesus' betrayal by Judas, his trial by Pontius Pilate, and ultimately his crucifixion.
Lloyd Webber's rock score is both impressive and inspired, and Rice's lyrics are succinct in how they touch upon the personal conflicts and struggles that Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene encounter, yet they never become sacrilegious. This show was their first big hit and it catapulted them to fame, earning a Tony nomination for Best Original Score.
The ABT cast along with director Kiel Klaphake and choreographer Kurtis W. Overby are all gifted professionals and this show clearly takes an emotional toll on all involved. But Jesus Christ Superstar isn't a traditional musical theatre piece. It requires the cast to be able to move seamlessly throughout the rock score, delivering high-pitched riffs and screaming wails that any fan of the show is well familiar with. This isn't Rodgers and Hammerstein, after all.
While Brett Travis and Shawn W. Smith are fine as Jesus and Judas, respectively, and both deliver well nuanced portrayals with pure and beautiful singing voices, they don't have rough, rock-hued singing voices that would more completely pull off the material. They start out fine but as the show goes on they become less effective. As Jesus, Travis delivers a performance full of introspective expression and compassion. We see shades of humility, passion and strength along with anguish and a conflicted internal struggle. However, toward the end of the show he seems to come across more as a whiner and not someone who is truly uncertain about his actions or a person coming to terms with his fate, which hurts the ending of the show and deprives the crucifixion scene of a truly emotional resonance.
Smith does well in showing us the conflicted views and feelings that Judas has, but there are some moments in his performance and in the direction that could be clearer. Judas' change from devotion to his ultimate betrayal of Jesus is one of the driving forces of the piece, yet Judas is pretty much portrayed from the beginning as a man who has made up his mind about his belief that Jesus is just a man. By not quite fully seeing his struggles and Klaphake's decision to have "Heaven on Their Minds" sung directly to Jesus, and not as an introspective number with Judas looking upon Jesus and the apostles from afar, questioning his beliefs, seems odd and makes Judas' journey less intriguing. Klaphake also has added in a moment where Judas shoots up heroin right before he betrays Christ. I don't know if this is to imply that Judas needed drugs in order to get the strength to turn Jesus in, or if it is meant to be seen as a character flaw, or if it is intended as a reference to the modern times of this production's setting. No matter what the reasoning for its inclusion, it detracts from that moment without adding anything but questions.
Cassandra Klaphake injects Mary with a jolt of warmth and passion. Her legit voice invokes a soothing, loving quality in her solo numbers. I just wish her gutsy, deep tones had more of a rock edge to them and more earthy and gritty sounds. Also, with the exception of the way Judas treats her, Mary is portrayed as a woman fully accepted by everyone in Jesus' group. This makes her less of an outsider, than I believe a more accurate portrayal of her inclusion amongst the apostles should be represented. In supporting parts, Matthew Mello brings a clarity to the imposing Pilate, a man who doesn't quite know what to do with this so-called king, and Andy Meyers is superb as Herod without camping up or overplaying the part but instead bringing a refreshing, direct portrayal of this man.
The majority of the creative elements are excellent. Kurtis W. Overby's choreography is vibrant, varied and lively, though his decision to have the lepers deliver a forceful, buoyant number seems slightly odd, especially since they are singing the lyrics "see me stand, I can hardly walk" while they are dancing up a storm. Aaron Sheckler's set features a raised platform and a wooden staircase that evoke a train trestle in a large, somewhat run down metropolitan city. Michaela Lynne Stein's costumes are excellent, with a blend of earth tones and simple fabrics for Jesus and the apostles compared to more elaborate textiles that pop with bright colors for the powerful people Jesus comes in contact with. While these more colorful designs play off some of the costumes in The Hunger Games series of films, they still work well here to show the wide divide that exists between the poor and the wealthy. Amanda Gran's wigs features some colorful cotton candy creations as well as a stunningly braided wig for Mary. The lighting design by William Kirkham achieves some beautiful images. Matt Drui's sound design is clear but slightly off, giving more volume to the orchestra which overpowers the cast at numerous times, and the band doesn't quite deliver the refined sound the score requires, with the funky guitar licks, blaring horns, and hard driving drums not always in sync.
With no dialogue, Jesus Christ Superstar relies on its moving lyrics and stirring rock score to tell the story of Christ. While ABT's production has many winning elements, it's lacking an ability to let the power of Lloyd Webber's driving rock score and Rice's lyrics be effectively delivered by a cast and band to ensure that the many emotional moments in the show are deeply moving.
Please note that the part of Mary will be portrayed by four different actresses, all of whom have performed in numerous shows at ABT, over the course of the run.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs through April 16th, 2017, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.azbroadway.org or by calling 623 776-8400.
Lyrics by Tim Rice
*Member, Actors' Equity Association