BWW Reviews: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Bayou City Theatrics Super Let Down
It was the summer of 1988 when I first heard the melodious JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR score. After church, Mamma and Nanny T would make rounds to the local garage sales and the original cast album was one of their finds. I had a vintage stereo with a record player and this was my solace after church or rehearsal. When Bayou City Theatrics announced this show my excitement ranneth over and I was ready to head to the theatre to see what the creatives had for the American Stage.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR opened in London in 1972 at the Palace Theatre starring Paul Nicholas as Jesus, Stephen Tate as Judas ad Dana Gillespie as Mary Magdalene. The Broadway production opened October of 1971 directed by Tom O'Horgan and starring Jeff Fenholt as Jesus, Bob Bingham as Caiaphas and Ben Vereen as Judas. This musical is loosely based on the Gospels of the New Testament chronicling the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. SUPERSTAR is noted as the third musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Tim Rice. During this time in the history of American Musical Theatre, the look, sound and composition of the musical was on the brink of change. In 1967 Gerome Ragni and James Rado revolutionized the Great White Way with their tribal musical HAIR which infused rock, pop and blues in the composition of the score. It was at this time that the contemporary musical revolution began and the first rock musical was birthed out of a need to challenge the establishment and take the "White" out of the Great White Way.
Fusing hard rock with raw vocals can be a feat while producing any contemporary musical, but this becomes an arduous task especially with JC SUPERSTAR. The vocal range, stability and consistency need to be top priority when producing this show. The question many ask when going to see a production of JC Superstar is can the actors sing the complicated score. And in Colton Berry's production, the answer is no. I will get into more about this later.
From the original production's rocked-out afros to the Broadway revival's chic Anna Sui-inspired silhouettes, this production has been done every which way but loose. As to the costumes, they were ok, not overly creative or styled to make a point. I loved the simplicity of the Pharisees costumes. The simple black tube dress with black reading glasses made a point and worked on all body types on stage. This is an ode to simplicity with an accessory that made the costume pop. The red and black color pallet was superficial and lacked cohesion. As to Bayou City's creative take on this piece, I had questions about the artistic choices. I didn't know if this was a post-apocalyptic version or a street gang's lair in a New York sewer. I loved the pipes hanging from the ceiling, and the tunnels stage right and left; they reminded me of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There were a few missed steps with this production, down to the opening projections and the crumpled up one-sheet playbills on the counter which I thought was trash. Time, place and action are quintessential for a play or musical. If we don't know where we are it raises questions. If this was a post-apocalyptic take, maybe taking the time to burn the edges of the one sheet program would have given us a sense of destruction and devastation. As artists, if we are going to take the time to climb the mountain, then we must take the risk and jump.
The driving guitar lick that is prevalent throughout this piece began and the driving mysterious feel was lost right at the top of the show. The opening number must awaken our senses, grab them by the throat and whip them into musical submission, and this didn't happen. Even the young lady sitting next to me was tapping her feet as if to say, speed this up maestro. Judas (Colton Berry) entered injecting some type of drug into his veins, and I loved this, but if the character is a drug addict, the continuity needed to be present throughout the show. This idea was lost, and it could have helped propel the madness of Judas. Once Colton began to sing "Heaven on Their Minds" I immediately knew this was going to be a bumpy ride. Loading up on too much air and pushing on fatigued vocal chords caused laryngeal issues from start to curtain. Jesus played by Tyler Galindo had a great start, but by the end of the show he was vocally out of the game. During "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)" his vocal back phrasings was out of the musical pocket, and there were moments where he seemed to have forgotten the lyrics; this also happened during "Judas Death." I lost all hope for this show but it wasn't until Laz Estrada and Ryan Frenk entered the space that I was back in the game. Laz Estrada delivered the best vocal performance of the evening. "Pilate's Dream" was delivered with vocal ease and was the perfect juxtaposition to the hard driven rock vocal needed for the score. This was great casting! "Peters Denial" and "Could We Start Again" were beautiful nuggets of vocal performance delivered by Ryan Frenk. As a singer, we have to embrace what we have and understand that the gift is enough. There's no denying the vocal talent of these artists, but some material isn't meant for certain voices; you can't make a flute a tuba.
Tori Shoemaker played Mary Magdalene but missed the mark. Her connection with Jesus seemed contrived and lacked a sense of humanity. Her rendition of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" made popular by Judy Kuhn was a complete letdown. I fell in love with musicals due to their combination of all performance mediums to tell a story. This production is labeled a rock opera, using recitativo accompagnato with hard rock undertones. Overall, these vocal elements weren't executed gracefully. The staging and choreography lacked depth, composition and panache. Choreographer Luke Hamilton did not bring the essential choreographic elements to this production. In a musical everything has to be relevant to the story, even the movement. The choreography is an unscripted character, which has to have a story arc and intent. The ever so popular "King Herod's Song" is an ode to Vaudeville, and the choreography lacked focus and intent. I love to see young artists break the mold, but classic numbers such as this need to have production quality, and entertain the audience using the composition and genre of the music as the foundation to build a choreographic story. A random battement here and a calypso leap there were used frivolously. I expected so much from this theatre company. I am a sucker for nuance and those little nugget moments, and this piece lacked all of the above. These are just my two cents so spend them how you may.
I love to see fringe theatre companies take a stand, dare to be different and use the theatre for change. The creatives at Bayou City Theatrics are busy cranking out musicals and even though JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR missed the mark, I was excited to take a drive down memory lane. No matter my opinion on this performance, there is no denying the power of a great song and a wonderful story. I found myself bobbing my head and singing along to the exquisitely written music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and perfectly penned lyrics by Tim Rice.
For more information on Bayou City Theatrics and their educational extension please visit: www.bayoucitytheatrics.com