Jesus Christ Superstar started life as a concept album, though it is hard to imagine that its creators, Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics) had no theatrical intentions for it. It was developed to a degree in tandem with the pair’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which had received productions at various stages of its history but had also appeared as a concept album prior to its first full production.
Like Joseph, Superstar imagines a Biblical character as a pop hero who turns out to be more ordinary than the hero status might imply. Only, where Joseph was intended for performances by school groups, Superstar is an adult story. It takes its text from what is often referred to as the “passion” of Jesus, and it depicts the political undercurrents stemming from a Roman occupation that left in place the trappings of local rule, particularly where religion was concerned.
The genesis of the project as a concept album, however, left it devoid of clues for presenting it live. Mr. Webber reportedly hated the original Broadway production, by Tom O’Horgan, who had also directed Hair for Broadway. Other directors took different approaches, including Norman Jewison’s film version that framed the presentation around a group of contemporary actors who assembled to put on a passion play.
Ray Limon, director and choreographer of the production of Jesus Christ Superstar that is currently performing at the Welk Resort Theatre, stages the show straightforwardly. He sets it in period and uses 22 performers in the cast. Every inch of available space ends up in the show, including having cast members enter and exit through the house and appear on multiple levels, both inside and outside of the proscenium (Assistant Theatre Manager Jennifer Edwards is credited as designing the impressive lighting and collaborating with Mr. Limon on the set design).
It’s a show that’s designed to impress, and it does so, with a few caveats.
The principal performers are strong and well-directed. Kyle Short ably anchors the production as Jesus. He has a solid voice and an ability to perform the range of emotions needed as Jesus’ journey progresses, everything from rage to pity, compassion to frustration, and finally serene acceptance in the face of a cruel death. As Mary Magdalene, Catrina Teruel acts supportively and especially impresses singing the show’s hit song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”
In secondary roles, Winston Peacock, Jacob Huff and Rudy Martinez conspire well as the priests whose theology and even continued existence are threatened by the possibility that Jesus might be the eagerly-awaited Messiah (and Mr. Huff has an excellent bass range, including the ability to sing the very lowest notes his character is given). Quentin Garzón makes for a conflicted Pontius Pilate, and Ryan Dietrich does a campy turn late in the show as King Herod.
As Judas, Dominique Petit Frere has the right look for the part, but his vocals are many times under-powered, compared to the other principals.
Musical director Justin Gray deserves a lot of credit for coaching a large number of solo singing roles and holding things together with only three other musicians in the pit. Unfortunately, the choral work still needed help at the performance I saw. The sung text was occasionally garbled, and individual voices tended to stand out instead of blend.
Mr. Limon directs like a choreographer, always aware of how his performers look and move on stage. I was pleasantly surprised how fluid and well-paced the show was, given the potential nightmare of a large cast inhabiting a relatively small space – until the very end. Apparently, something went wrong with a key set piece (a man dressed in black and wearing a headset appeared from the wings to assist), and all of the energy was lost in the final scene. I’m hoping that the performance I saw was an aberration and that the ending in other performances comes off in a powerful manner.
The Welk Resort Theatre often provides a place for young actors to perform professionally and to experience the growth and maturity that a long-run provides (Superstar closes August 7). This production holds the promise of a fulfilling experience of actors and audience alike, and I hope this promise is fulfilled.