Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of School of Rock - The Musical
It seems timely that the musical Jesus Christ Superstar is currently receiving a major local production, as presented by University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). After all, the national tour of Webber's latest show, School of Rock, is playing at the Aronoff Center, and it's also the Lenten season. CCM's mounting incorporates copious amount of dance, showcases the seemingly never-ending pool of talented performers, and includes some impressively stark design elements.
Jesus Christ Superstar is a retelling (with a number of liberties taken) of the last week of Jesus' life. The story is told equally from the perspectives of Jesus and Judas, starting just before the the entrance into Jerusalem by Jesus and his disciples up through Jesus' crucifixion. This version of the New Testament text attempts neither to confirm nor deny the divinity of Christ. Rather, it focuses on the humanity of Jesus. The character of Judas is written to personify the confusion, doubts and fears of all of Jesus' followers. To the musical's detriment, the presentation of the story assumes that the audience members know the tale, as few characters are sufficiently introduced. However, a high level of dramatic tension exists throughout to sustain sufficient interest in the piece, and the presentation is likely to be thought-provoking for those already knowing the story.
Jesus Christ Superstar was one of the first sung-through, fully conceived book musicals using rock music. The show greatly influenced theater professionals (Les Misérables creators Boublil and Schonberg) and brought many new fans to musical theater (including this writer). The score was by two relative unknowns (at the time), Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics). The music contains an effective mix of hard-driving rock riffs and wonderfully soulful ballads, all with a highly theatrical flavor. Rice's lyrics are extremely efficient, conveying the story along with the political and historical background of the time, all while achieving the high standards of the musical theater songwriting craft. "Heaven on Their Minds," "Everything's Alright," "I Don't Know How To Love Him," "Gethsemane," and the title number have become Broadway classics.
At CCM, director/choreographer Diane Lala doesn't waste any time in kicking the storytelling off, using several vignettes to establish the ministry of Jesus and his relationship with his disciples during the rockin' overture. Audiences are unlikely to ever see a production of this show that infuses so much dance into the staging. The dances are visually stunning and bring an energy to the piece which matches that of the music. Ms. Lala presents "King Herod's Song" as a full blown, vaudevillian tap dance number, and her choreography for "Simon Zealotes" is also a highlight. However, there are a few moments when the dance seems a bit excessive and pulls focus from the primary action. Ms. Lala uses the performance space well, and supplies some blocking and character interpretation that provide additional layers to the story. Associate musical director Luke Flood led the great sounding 22-piece orchestra at the performance attended, with the esteemed Roger Grodsky serving as the show's musical director.
Jesus Christ Superstar at CCM has its three lead roles double-cast. At the performance reviewed, Bryce Baxter is vocally stunning as Jesus, especially in "Gethsemane" and "Poor Jerusalem", and conveys the pain and sadness of Jesus' impending betrayal and death through non-verbal cues and his vocal delivery. As Judas, Jordon Miller starts out a bit slow in the singing department, with the lower range portion of "Heaven on Their Minds" being somewhat challenging. However, Mr. Miller does impress vocally during "The Last Supper" and "Judas' Death," and clearly communicates the torment and inner conflict of the character through his acting. Keaton Whittaker could provide a few more layers acting-wise to Mary Magdalene, but sings sweetly, especially on "Could We Start Again, Please?."
As Pontius Pilate, Phillip Johnson-Richardson supplies crystal clear and rich vocal talents, and captures the conflicted nature of the Roman official skillfully. Derek Kastner brings the house down in his tap-dancing, power-crazy cameo as King Herod. Also supplying praiseworthy performances are Gabe Wrobel (Caiaphas), Madison Hagler (Annas), and Christopher Kelley (Peter). The entire hardworking ensemble deserves kudos for their dancing and vocal support throughout.
The scenic design by Matthew D. Hamel consists of a multi-tiered combination of steps, scaffolding, and Roman style columns and arches, hinting at the mixture of ancient Judea and the occupying Roman influence, along with modern elements. The costumes by Ashley Berg likewise include touches of modern clothing along with hints of historical pieces (both 2000 years ago and the early 1970s when the piece was introduced) for an overall timeless motif that is befitting the material. The extremely active lighting design by Erik McCandless includes small, onstage search lights and spots in numerous color hues, providing a wonderful overall effect.
CCM's production of Jesus Christ Superstar offers a few unique elements, including a dance-centric approach to much of the staging, as well as some first-rate performances. The show's vibrant score and moving subject matter make it a favorite of many of the CCM patrons who entered adulthood at the time the groundbreaking album that introduced the piece was released, but there's much to enjoy for theatergoers of any age.
Jesus Christ Superstar, through March 4, 2018 at the Patricia Corbett Theater, CCM Village, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati OH. For more information, visit www.ccm.uc.edu.