BWW Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Signature Theatre
It's hard to believe that the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar has been around since 1971. What started life as a concept album a year earlier, the musical is now a perennial favorite to present among professional and non-pro companies.
Signature Theatre's current production of this classic isn't necessarily the religious experience one might desire. With at least one of the leads completely ill-suited to his character and sometimes too frenetic pacing, this production, at least for me, is emotionally unsatisfying.
Our overseer with a mission Judas Iscariot (Ari McKay Wilford) guides us through the story of Jesus of Nazareth (Nicholas Edwards). Jesus is an unassuming guy who sees the good in everyone. This persona gives him a rock star status and he attracts many followers along his journey. They actually think that they can be healed just by being in His presence.
Mary Magdalene (Natascia Diaz) is a whore looking to clean up her act and quickly falls in love with Jesus even though she really doesn't know how to (as the song goes).
Not everyone is enamored with Jesus though, the high priest Caiaphas (Thomas Adrian Simpson) and his cronies masquerading as priests Annas (Sam Ludwig) and Kara-Tameika Watkins enlist Judas' help to bring Jesus before the high authority figure Pontius Pilate (Bobby Smith). Even after 39 lashes and a dreadful amount of bludgeoning, Jesus' philosophy that all people are still good regardless of the terrible things they might do never wanes. You all know the outcome of this story so I won't be telling any tales out of Sunday School if I say it involves a cross and a crown of thorns.
In many cases, performance wise, the supporting players outshine the principal performers.
Thomas Adrian Simpson's rich deep bass voice and imposing stage presence make for a menacing and powerful Caiaphas.
In a positive turn of non- traditional casting Awa Sal Secka brings the house down as Simon Zealotes with her killer production number named after her character.
Another non- traditional casting choice that works extremely well is Sherri L. Edelen as King Herod. You have not seen or heard "King of the Jews" performed quite like this. It's Herod and her backup singers with some kick-cross choreography by Signature Theatre's original dancing queen Karma Camp.
Michael J. Mainwaring makes a strong showing as Peter. His "Could we Start Again Please," with Diaz, is a vocal high point of the proceedings.
By far, my favorite of the supporting character portrayals has to be the invincible Bobby Smith as Pontius Pilate. It's a role you might never consider him to be right for, but you will be humbled by his take on "Pilate's Dream" and his big trial scene. I always knew he was a stage god but this performance really proves that thinking.
Regarding the principals, Natascia Diaz's Mary Magdalene has all the power that is needed for the role. Her "I Don't Know How to Love Him" is a less belty version than you might be used to hearing, but her character arc and incredibly strong vocals throughout make her one of the more mesmerizing things about the production.
It took me a little while to warm up to Nicholas Edwards as Jesus. Considering the character in the original scriptures is always even tempered, his outburst at the Last Supper felt jarring and contrary to his demeanor. Where Edwards nails his performance though is with his rock aria "Gethsemane." It is here that you see Jesus, the man. at his most vulnerable and Edwards really puts that across during that moment.
Unfortunately, the big thorn in this production's side happens to be Ari McKay Wilford as Judas. He is vocally-ill equipped for "Heaven on Their Minds" and doesn't have a strong enough voice to sing the show in general. His overall performance is also lacking. This is a problem because Judas has to carry to show as the protagonist so any tension that should arise between Judas and Jesus or Judas and Caiaphas doesn't exist.
Director Joe Calarco paces the production quite briskly, sometimes too briskly for anything to set in dramatically. I understand his modern take on the material and maybe the briskness is for the ADHD generation, but at a certain point you have to let the audience do some of the work. Opportunities for the audience to connect with the material occurred more frequently in act two than act one, but it takes a while to get there.
Karma Camp's choreography is very aerobic-like with the title song and Zealotes' song being two of the standouts.
Fight Director Casey Kaleba turns Jesus' thirty nine lashes into a full out brawl proving once again that fight choreography is an art and Kaleba is one of the best at his craft.
Musical Director William Yanesh leads a red hot seven-piece rock band through Andrew Lloyd Webber's orchestration.
Luciana Stecconi's minimalistic set consists of many rectangular pieces that can be configured in a number of ways, as well as striking door units that give Zachary G. Borovay's projections a home throughout. Jason Lyons' lighting features many led and studio lights that give the stage big boosts of color and ominous white shafts of light at the appropriate times. Frank Labovitz's modern costumes serve the production concept well.
With some strong performances from many, Signature Theatre's production of Jesus Christ Superstar is worth a look. It might not be a total win, but Signature shouldn't be crucified for it either.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes including one intermission.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs through July 2, 2017 at Signature Theatre's Max space which is located at 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA. For tickets, click here.