BWW Review: Brian Beach & Cody Carlson Rock the New Tampa Players' Production of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
It may have been 46 years ago, but I remember it like it was two days ago, mainly because it was the first time I had heard my oldest sister, then a teenager, talk back to my parents. They were arguing over the then-current album, Andrew Lloyd Webber's and Tim Rice's rock opera, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. "It's sacrilegious!" my mother said fervently. My sister was adamant that it was not. So my parents did what any good parent would do--they decided to research the piece. They went to a local production in D.C., and it opened their minds and hearts. They came back enthusiastically raving, moved by the music and the message, and agreed with my sister that it was not sacrilegious. Soon, the album became a mainstay in our household. Even to this day, if JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is played around my family, we will all take our parts in the rock opera (I always wind up as Pilate) and perform it then and there. I know my family is not alone in this tradition.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR has had so many versions over the years, so many interpretations, that it could make your head spin. There's the traditional religious one with Jesus in a white robe; the first glitzy, over-the-top Broadway version; the hippy-dippy 1973 movie version directed by Norman Jewison; a proto-punk version; a more recent concert version; a weird dystopian version; a hard-rocking version with Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls playing Jesus; and lots of versions set in today's world. The version that one of the better local community theatres--the New Tampa Players--offers thru Palm Sunday, April 9th at the University Area CDC is more like the modern versions where everyone is dressed in rather contemporary garb. Usually this is done to show that Jesus' story could work in today's world--the Son of Man takes on the government and religious leaders.
This production is all over the place, but JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR remains one of the most hummable, powerful pieces of theatre in Andrew Lloyd Webber's oeuvre, and the NTP's production offers incredible, lively performances, especially in its leads, that should not be missed.
Leading the way is Brian Beach's work as Jesus. When it comes to vocal power, this performer pulls out his inner Ian Anderson and Ted Neeley, and he nails each song, each high-pitched rock shriek, each seemingly impossible note. It's a true star turn. I would like to see that power extend in the scenes when he's not singing--we need to get that feeling even when just watching Christ in his silent moments--but you will be thrilled by his work here. And his "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)" was an absolute home run, one of the strongest moments I've seen onstage this year.
The interesting thing about JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is that Jesus is not the lead. That honor goes to history's biggest scoundrel, the betrayer of all time, Judas. Played by the multi-talented Cody Carlson here, Judas is a volcanic eruption, a rock star in the making, whose every moment onstage quakes JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR to life. He hits those hard-to-hit notes, bashes them to smithereens, and I much prefer his in-your-face, combustible work to the original Judas, Murray Head. Still, I would like to see Carlson's Judas have even more layers; we see his anger, and feel his frustration with the way things have turned out for the character, but we also need to sense more of the love that connected him to Jesus in the first place. Still, it's an incredible performance, matching Beach's Jesus note for note, and the standout when we leave the theatre. When Carlson sings--from the opening "Heaven on Their Minds" to the title song in Act Two--the walls shake and the roof feels like it may come falling down on us. This is powerful stuff, and Carlson has the chops to pull it off brilliantly.
In fact, when Carlson sang "Heaven on Their Minds," it was the second time in a single week (since Michael Silvestri's "I Am What I Am" at the Carrollwood Players) when I heard a song so powerful that I got goose bumps and felt as if I had been hearing the song for the first time. And then it happened again with Beach's "Gethsemane." These are two strong leads, working well together and providing great contrasts in styles, delivering the goods as they must (if either performance turns out weak, then you have no show).
Just as strong as Jesus and Judas is Stu Sanford's Caiaphas, stealing the production with his incredible bass voice and intimidating stage presence (he played the same role at Eight O'Clock theatre last year, where he was also a standout). Thomas Pahl as Annas and Frank Weiss as a priest offer the perfect sidemen to Sanford's imposing figure dressed in all white (including white yamacas).
Miguel Rodriguez is the funniest King Herod I've seen in years. His "Herod's Song," which originally started out as a Lloyd Webber ditty called "Try It and See" for you trivia buffs, is the showstopper it needs to be. With his three lady fan dancers, this is the greatest cameo in musical theatre, performed joyously and hilariously by one of the area's finest actors. His demented kick line at the end of the song is worth the price of admission right there.
The audience gave Rodriguez sustained applause at the end of his number, and if they could have stood with an ovation at that moment, they would have.
The striking Chelsie Smith, a fresh face in our local theatre scene, has a sweet voice as Mary Magdalene. However, the damaged past of the character does not seem to exist here, so it makes no sense when Judas sings to Jesus, "It seems to me a strange thing, mystifying/That a man like you can waste his time on women of her kind..." Magdalene resembles someone you would find on Sorority Row here; there's no real indication that she was a lady of the evening. I know there's a recent debate in religious circles as to whether Mary Magdalene was actually a prostitute or not, but it's alluded to in the lyrics of the show, so that angle must be played. (It's far more interesting from a storytelling view that Jesus hangs with "women of her kind" instead of the holier-than-thou folk anyway.) We also never get a glimpse of Mary's struggle--her sexual longing for a man that she knows she cannot have. We need to see the unspoken layers, the yearning, in her. But Smith sings her songs well, and does a fine job with "I Don't Know How to Love Him," one of the prettiest love songs of the past fifty years.
Ryan Farnworth is extremely strong as a purple-suited Pontius Pilate, with a deep, powerful voice that stops you dead in your tracks. But he undermines the character by pacing all over the place. His "Pilate's Dream" would have been stronger if he just sat or stood there and sang it to us (the unnecessary blocking seemed to get in the way). And his "39 Lashes" in "Trial By Pilate" starts so feverishly high that he has nowhere to go vocally or emotionally by the time he reaches 39. But his moment right after the "39 Lashes"--"Where are you from, Jesus?/What do you want, Jesus?/Tell me"--is one of the show's high points, a man who tries to understand but cannot change the fate of the battered Christ. Pilate realizes that he is eternally doomed but it's too late for him to do anything about it; Farnworth plays this beautifully.
Jarrett Koski is wonderful as Peter the Denier, and he sings marvelously well in the duet with Mary, one of Lloyd Webber's most beautiful songs, "Could We Start Again, Please?" (Smith's pleasant voice matches quite well with Koski's more emotional interpretation here.) Koski also worked as the show's choreographer, and most of his dances were inspired, full of life.
Tim Curran does well enough as Simon in the wild "Simon Zealotes," and the entire ensemble was spirited throughout the show. Darrah Barsness, Tracy Stemm Crews, Joshua Eberhart, Leanne Ferguson, Dianne Geiger, JoNathan Scott Hartman, Rachel Higginbotham, Ralph Higginbotham, Paula Spangler Klein, Matthew Reigel, Erica Leigh Speranza, Alicia Spiegel, Matthew Vickery, Kym Welch and the seemingly ubiquitous James Cass all put in good work. Special mention must be paid to Penni Willen, who is always the liveliest in the crowd scenes, always the one who is in character at all times onstage, even when it's not her line or song.
The direction as well as the musical direction are by G. Frank Meekins. This is one beautiful-sounding show. I questioned some of his staging choices, though, such as having Jesus standing side by side with Caiaphas in "Hosanna." This makes no sense, since the reason Jesus wasn't nabbed by the Powers That Be at this point was because he was surrounded by the crowds. Having Beach and Sanford just a few feet from each other above the crowd negate this. (This is an issue that the Eight O'Clock Theatre production also had last year.) There also seemed a lot of unnecessary pacing from various characters rather than having them move with purpose. But I loved the way the cast maneuvered the set pieces and stairs to the music. It's a rousing production that Meekins has guided with much heart and aplomb.
Meekins also conducts the sensational orchestra as well as being on keyboards. His orchestra does magical work here and drives the show. This is one fast-paced production, with Brian Mason on trombone, Robert Johnson and Steven Vought on trumpet, Samantha Snow on French horn, Joseph Rose on the flute and piccolo, Brooke Dansberger on flute and clarinet, Noah Redstone on oboe, Caleb Hausman on bass, and Nathaniel Kinter on drums. A special shout out must go to Rory Flaherty on the guitar, who puts his own Jimi Hendrix bombast into the rollicking opening of "Damned for All Time/Blood Money."
When I drove away from the theatre after the show, all I could do was hum and sing the JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR playlist that was joyfully stuck in my head. It was like I was re-living my childhood. I was in heaven.
NTP's JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR plays at the University Area CDC until April 9th. For more information, please contact (813) 644-8285.
PLEASE NOTE: Proceeds from the New Tampa Players' performance of Jesus Christ Superstar on Thursday, April 6 will benefit the community, via the non-profit University Area Community Development Corporation (University Area CDC).
Tickets will be sold on a "pay what you can" basis at the door to the April 6 performance at 7:30 p.m., held at the University Area Community Center at 14013 N. 22nd St., Tampa, 33613.
Proceeds from this performance will go toward the University Area CDC mission of providing support for thousands of Tampa residents through youth programs, adult education and resource assistance. Its primary mission is the redevelopment and sustainability of the at-risk areas surrounding University of South Florida's Tampa campus. For more information about UACDC, a 501(c)(3) public/private partnership, visit www.uacdc.org.
PHOTO CREDIT: James Cass