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BWW Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Players On Air

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BWW Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Players On Air
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Photo Credit Players On Air

What's the buzz? Lemme tell you what was a'happenin' last weekend at the performing arts space in the old North Carroll High School in Hampstead. Players On Air presented a revival of Andrew Lloyd Weber's Jesus Christ Superstar and those hallowed halls were rockin!

Before you get too excited, I have to tell you this was a one-off weekend run, which is a pity because it deserved a much longer outing. But I'll recap and review, so the next time this company puts on a show, you'll know it's a company that deserves a look.

Director Laura Wonsala has fearlessly put her own spin on the familiar tale of the events leading up to the crucifixion of JC. Most shows run on the vision of the person-in-charge, and this one was no exception. The difference is, with chestnuts like JCS, variables and alternative interpretations are rare. Not so this time. Ms. Wonsala wisely sized up the talent, the space, the assets and limitations and concocted a frothy, gritty, hyper-stylized rendering that was at once satisfying and disturbing. To the traditional scaffolding set was added a back wall covered with old rock concert posters, curled and yellowing with age, anchored by three bi-level scaffolds, covered in graffiti. No set designer is credited but the execution was excellent.

Moving the action from Is-ra-el BC to some indeterminate time period that combined Mafia like priests, cell phones (with the crowd and JC posing for selfies) and other anachronistic touches could have been ridiculous, but it somehow fit the zeitgeist of this iteration - a Seattle grunge, frat party gone horribly wrong. A lot of liberties taken, with mostly excellent results. The production team did an outstanding job, particularly Cory Browns moody and innovative light and sound design. And while Alicia Vogt's choice of the puffy white vest on JC may not have been the most flattering, the pinstriped suits on the priests, the drunken party-girl vibe in the costumes of some members of the ensemble, and the street-savvy garb of the rest of the crowd were just the right touch.

And speaking of the crowd, this ensemble sang and danced with riveting gusto. Kristin Rigsby did her usual excellent job with the moves, wisely limiting the serious work to an ensemble of five well-trained dancers. Samantha Azat, Sarah Fronheiser, Tori Rettbert, Dani Rizzo, and Claire Ryland handled the chore nicely. Notable ensemble dance numbers were Hosana!, the titular Jesus Christ Superstar, King Herrod's Song, and The Temple. Musical Director Michael Livingston coached and shaped the vocals into a well -blended chorus that handled the difficult score with seeming ease.

The cast is much too large and way too talented to give space to each and every one of the featured players, but let's hit the highlights: Dave Kaiser's Pilate as a harried, put-upon corporate CEO who wishes nothing more than to be done with this pip-squeak Jesus is terrific, with a voice and demeanor well suited to the role. Michael Livingston as a Barnum and Baily ringleader in the guise of King Herod was a hoot, with a grand baritone and enough schmaltzy schtick to power a bevy of Borscht Belt comics. Roman Mykyta as Peter and Tim Price as Simon both had exceptional voices that blended well with Alyson Kaiser on Can We Start Again.

As for Ms. Kaiser, her lovely voice and calming demeanor were a perfect choice for Mary Magdeline. I would have loved to see just a little more emotional investment from her in some of her interactions with JC, but she certainly was a pleasure to hear. Her voice was never better than when she sang the familiar I Don't Know How To Love Him with exceptional pathos and feeling.

I have long thought the real name of this show should be JUDAS, Superstar. Ben Azat met every challenge of the vocally exhausting part of Judas with a professional level of commitment. Thin as a whippet and sharp as a stiletto, he owned the stage with a mixture of guilt and bravado that was as physically impressive as it was vocally electrifying.

But any production of Jesus Christ Superstar runs on the eponymous character himself. Paul Kennedy has the face of an angel, a voice that could easily coerce the masses to follow him anywhere and the emotional range to traverse the highs of adoration to the depths of the martyr's despair. A believable and charismatic star turn.

I have a personal relationship with this show, having gotten my start as a dancer in a ballet based on the score in the early 70s, and I've played Judas. I've been a fan for close to 50 years. This was a particularly enjoyable outing of beloved piece of theatre. My only regret is that it only ran for one weekend. But I'll be watching for more productions from Players On Air. I heartily advise you to do the same!

For more information on future productions by Players On Air, visit their website at Players On Air.


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