Scheduled to coincide on the calendar with the days historically associated with the last week in the life of Christ, Bristol Riverside Theatre’s spring production of the groundbreaking 1971 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, is relocated from Jerusalem in the 1st century AD to “Here” and “Now.” Directed by Keith Baker, the pacing is fast and the mood and design are full-out post-modern, replete with selfie sticks, cell phones, and protest signs, to relate the timeless theme of socio-political activism in a repressive era to a 21st-century audience.
Roman Tatarowicz’s stationary set of a sleek white staircase serves as all of the locales in the familiar story, identified and enhanced by John Hoey’s digital projections and a few telling movable props – the low white tables and goblets of the Last Supper; the purse of silver coins paid for the kiss of Judas; and the gun, proffered to him by Annas, with which he kills himself (a chilling current replacement for the usual hanging rope). Joe Doran’s theatrical lighting sets the tone of the shifting scenes, from blood red for the flagellation of Christ and the suicide of Judas to bright flashing colors at Herod’s Palace to the white pallor of the entombment. Contemporary costumes by Linda Bee Stockton define the characters and their affiliations, with youthful streetwear for Jesus, the disciples, and followers; business suits and long black coats for their persecutors; and glitzy metallic, sequined, and fringed attire for the profaners of the temple and the courtiers of the king. All successfully serve in visually transporting the action from the Biblical era to the present.
Patrick H. Dunn, cast in the titular role, does not fit the traditional image of a long-haired attenuated Christ, nor does his characterization, which, under Baker’s direction, emphasizes physicality, anger, and theatricality over loving gentleness and serene submission. His solo rendition of “Gethsemane” in parts forsakes the melody in favor of explosive expression and vocal gymnastics that highlight his powerhouse projection and range. Adam Kemmerer as Judas has an equally powerful voice, and brings affecting psychological depth and emotional nuance to Christ’s betrayer, believably revealing his motivations (“Heaven on Their Minds”), questioning his fateful role in the Divine plan (“Damned for All Time/Blood Money”) and agonizing over his actions with suicidal guilt (“Judas’s Death”). Softness and sensitivity are provided by the subtle introspection and pure clear voices of Ciji Prosser as Mary Magdalene, in her exquisite performance of “Everything’s Alright” and the show’s stand-alone chart-topper “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” and Derrick Cobey as Peter, in their heartfelt duet “Could We Start Again Please?”
Other standouts in the supporting cast are Steve Steiner and Robert Farruggia, both convincingly conniving and diabolical as Caiaphas and Annas, and effectively delivering the required contrast of deep bass and high tenor in “This Jesus Must Die” and “Blood Money.” And Danny Rutigliano as Herod brings the insouciant mocking, contempt, and dismissal of Christ (though not full-blown rage) to the absurdist Vaudevillian number “King Herod’s Song,” re-imagined here as a Las Vegas-style spectacular with an ensemble of dancing showgirls and –boys, in over-the-top gaudy garb, choreographed with relish by Stephen Casey.
A live twelve-piece orchestra, with searing electric guitar solos by Neil Nemetz, maintains the quick tempo of the production, with skilled music direction by Douglass Lutz and sound by Liz Atkinson. Despite a few out-of-step moments in the dance routines and an oddly off-synch portrayal of the famous tableau vivant of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, the ensemble contributes fine harmonies to the show’s well-known hits – the gossipy “What’s the Buzz,” the haunting “Hosanna,” and the rousing title song “Superstar” – and brings high energy to Bristol Riverside Theatre’s updated version of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, plus a 15-minute intermission.