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BWW Review: Eight O'Clock Theatre's Rousing JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR

I belong to a generation that grew up on JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. I was seven years old when the rock opera concept album was first released in 1970 and witnessed heated debates about its contents between my parents and my sisters. My parents worried it might be profane, sacrilegious; they later watched a staged version of it and changed their minds (they absolutely loved it). It became a sort of touchstone, where as a child I had listened to it so often that I could perform a one-man version of it.

When it became a rock sensation, even spawning two Top-40 singles, young Andrew Lloyd Webber was not yet the Andrew Lloyd Webber, Superstar that we would come to know and love (or loathe). He was then looked upon as a prodigy, just in his early twenties, who created a landmark work, and we couldn't wait to see what the future would hold for him; depending on who you are, he either lived up to his promise or disappointed severely. It should be noted (and Phantom of the Opera worshipers may want to skip this sentence) that Lloyd Webber was never better than when he had Tim Rice writing the lyrics for him--JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, Evita and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Which brings me to the Eight O'Clock Theatre's production of the iconic rock opera. EOT's version of Lloyd Webber and Rice's musical take on the last days of Jesus Christ is galvanizing, creative, fast-paced and extremely moving. It is everything you want in a production of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.

I have seen several productions of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, and there were so many creative gems, directorial twists and turns, in the EOT production at the Largo Cultural Center that I sat there in awe. It is a tour de force of imagination. Every aspect works together beautifully, and the cast, leads and chorus alike, rise to the occasion.

Leading the way is Stephen Fee as Jesus, a more traditional take in an otherwise unconventional production. He has a marvelous voice, and his "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)," was thrilling and heartbreaking.

The irony of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is that Jesus is not really the lead character; that honor, for lack of a better word, goes to Judas. And here is where the director really added a powerful twist--casting a female in a male role. But it's not just any female; it's Christina Capehart, a force of nature who belts the rock numbers like few others. It may take a few moments in "Heaven on Their Minds" to get used to her in the role, but once you do, once all thoughts of Murray Head or Carl Anderson evaporate, she takes off with the show. She pulls out her best Ann Wilson and really tears through the numbers. Her rendition of "Superstar" may be the best I've heard (and I've heard many), with the entire cast utilizing every bit of the stage and even spreading into the audience. Although females cast as one of the leads of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is not new (Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls played Jesus in a 1994 version), it works wonders here. And when you have a performer with the pipes of Ms. Capehart, then you don't care what gender Judas is. Talent trumps all.

Amy Phillips has a beautiful voice as Mary Magdelene. Unfortunately, one of her prettier songs, "Everything's All Right," was drowned out by the loud (but very good) orchestra. The quietness and longing of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" worked much better. Her duet with Peter (another gender switch, with Mallory Quinn in the role), "Could We Start Again Please?", is gorgeous, but for some reason an entire section of the song was cut and wound up losing much of its power. The song is one of the most beautiful creations in Lloyd Webber's oeuvre, but due to its truncation here, you would never know that.

King Herod in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is one of the greatest cameo parts ever, and the wildly talented David Russell is incredibly memorable in his lone number. In Russell's hilarious hands, he finds levels you didn't know were there and is having the time of his life. The audience reciprocates that joy of performance; who knew watching a villain could be so much fun?

Dave Davis as Pontius Pilate is a formidable presence with an absolutely astounding voice. I just wish he had found more levels in the part. The 39 Lashes should be where he finds his humanity; before then, he's a smug man with too much power. But once he sees the torment that he has unleashed on the Christ, he tries to reach out, unable to make a decision on his own. Only when Jesus admonishes him--"You have nothing in your hands, any power you have comes to you from far beyond"--does he snap and make the decision to crucify Christ. Good as Davis is, we miss some of that emotional game-playing, where we tap into a vilified character's emotions and see his gut-wrenching indecision, the person underneath the power. But I loved how he wouldn't even look at Jesus at the opening of "Pilate and Christ," and he is a riveting performer. I just wanted to see a little more humanity and indecisiveness. He is a torn human being, not necessarily a villain. Besides, villains never think that they're villains; they are always the hero in their own story.

My favorite performance in the entire show belongs to Stu Sanford's imposing Caiaphas, whose deep, powerful voice gave me chills. Ably aided by Brian Yarbrough's sinister Annas, he is a force to be reckoned with. Cody Carlson is a rollicking Simon, over the top but so much fun to watch. His rousing "Simon Zealotes" is one of the many high points of the production.

But a show like this also lives and breathes by the ensemble, and here a large cast of various ages and genders keeps the show constantly moving: Ashley Baralt, Kristy Carlson, Hallie Delhagen, Jonathan Foster, Megan Gillespie, Austin Helms, Danielle Ice, Justin King, Lorraine Montgomery, Gloria Moranski, Chloe Netzel, Kayla Osborne, Terri Rick. Ashton Sarlo, Caroline Simpson, Michelle Stratton, Dennis Winchester, Dean Yurecka and Phil Yurecka. They joyously inhabit the various characters--from apostles to lepers, from loving Jesus fans to Jesus haters who dare laugh at a crucifixion. Their choreography is quite creative and full of verve although occasionally not as tight as desired.

The overall success of this production stems from one main source: the visionary genius of its director/choreographer, Domenic Bisesti. I have nothing but admiration for what he has accomplished here. He has taken a musical that many of us have seen and made it seem new. He has used all theatrical elements--lighting, dance, movement, character--to create a fresh experience from a relic of the Classic Rock years.

As often as I have seen JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, I always love seeing something new in the show. Here, there were several inventive, awe-inspiring moments. The presentational quality of the production--having the cast enter and dress in Terri Rick's clever costumes in front of us during the rip-roaring Overture, and having the cast stand at the sides, watching the show throughout (including King Herod lounging about and Pilate looking down)--works quite well. We know that we are watching a bit of theatre, that it's all a play and not "real"; and yet, we are as moved as if this happened to be a typical representational production.

I like how the director staged the Last Supper. He didn't go with the traditional re-creation of da Vinci's famous painting (now a cliché, mocked in Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part 1); he went the Giotto route, with the apostles' backs to the audience.

My only qualm in the staging of the show is that Caiaphas is too close to Jesus in the bouncy, sing-along "Hosanna." The reason they couldn't apprehend Jesus at this point in the story is that he's surrounded by so many followers. Having Caiaphas almost walk up directly to Jesus at this early part of the show (and not having Christ's followers between the two of them) makes no sense. The show also had various mic issues, and oftentimes, as previously noted, the music was too loud (especially in Act 1) and some of the lighter voices got lost in the mix.

But this JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is more than just special; it's a celebration that should be seen. It is certainly the fastest-paced show I have experienced all year. But it takes its time when necessary, such as the end of Act 1, where in silence, Judas weeps at her own betrayal as the cast walks by her. These are the types of elements that Besesti brings to the show. I have never seen this in a production, and it was absolutely brilliant. (The audience sat in rapt silence here; we didn't dare breathe until the house lights came up.)

Dalton Hamilton's lighting design is stunning. The light show at the top of Act 1, the laser-feel sparks of light as the whip hits Christ in the 39 Lashes, and the haunting light play before Judas' death are quite moving. The erector-set scenic design of Tom Hansen suits the show perfectly.

The production is driven by a truly rocking band, led by music director Philip King. With Brooke Stuart on drums, Dan Mockensturm on guitar, Daniel Kalosky on bass, Joe Offner on trombone, Joe Bonelli and Chrs Howard on trumpets, Tony Fuoco and Kurt Knipple on reeds, and Gary Wright on the horn, they are tight with a great sound and keep the show moving at a heart-racing pace.

There is a reason Eight O'Clock Theatre is one of the best community theatres in our vicinity. The cast, director, crew and orchestra of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR work together to create an experience that the audience will not soon forget. This is not some moldy oldie from a bygone age; it works just as well as it did forty-odd years ago. The story, as interpreted by these talented folks, seems fresh, like watching it anew. This JESUS lives.

Eight O'Clock Theatre's JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR plays at the Largo Cultural Center until March 20th. Please call (727) 587-6793 for tickets.

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From This Author Peter Nason