Jesus Christ Superstar remains among my favorite musicals and was the first cast album I ever owned. It broke new ground in 1970, starting out as a concept album for a rock opera before plans were made to stage it. The story of Jesus in his last days was composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber at age 21, with lyrics written by Tim Rice and they were combining production ideas from traditional theater and rock concerts. The audience for Prince William Little Theatre’s production showed their appreciation for Saturday’s show with a standing ovation.
The Gregory Theater in the Hylton Performing Arts Center is a venue with many creative possibilities and intriguing qualities. It has some of the flexibility of a black box theater but is much larger than others I have seen. The acting space looked somewhat empty at the start of the show. In the center are platforms interestingly stacked on each other at angles, building a pyramid-shaped structure up to an open balcony which surrounds the entire theater. The deck of the platforms were painted in an enticing break-up pattern, which was unspecific to me until I realized it matched the silhouetted face of Jesus that was later projected elsewhere in the theater. The audience saw it as an abstract design because the layout was visible as a whole from a bird’s eye view and overlapped the stacked platforms that formed the central playing space of the staging.
Director Ken Elston sets up the show with an interesting premise, contextualizing it for today’s audience. The ensemble first appears bringing onstage with them many of the props they will use, and we watch them add set dressing during the overture. The actors put up tents, take out signs and other props that suggest a camp of protesters. Overlooking all this are Caiphas (Joshua Wilson) and four priests in black business suits. They are the first representatives of the top of the power structure, all of whom scheme and plot to remove Jesus before he becomes too powerful. Three fabric panels are hung from the balcony on each side of the stage and soon videos and photographs are projected onto them. References on the signs and visuals to “Occupy”, “We are the 99%”, and slogans about gender and other civil rights protests connect the ensemble to the social unrest that surrounded Jesus in his final days. An actor with a video camera represented the media taking live shots during the scenes of protest. Jarret Baker’s video effects were an excellent use of new technology to connect this story of ancient times to contemporary events.
The score of Superstar is intense and very difficult, and the first song we hear, “Heaven on Their Minds” introduces us to one of the most complex characters of the show. Judas is sung with feeling and great vocal control by Terry Spann, who spends the song trying to comprehend Jesus’ motives.
Some actors seemed to be focused on the sound of the songs, but as the run progresses, I am sure the inner story of the characters will become more visible. The two performers who revealed their emotions best were Carlos Ramirez as Peter and Emma Gwin, as Mary Magdalene. Gwin’s rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” was lovely but her duet, with Ramirez, “Could We Start Again Please” was the most beautiful musical moment of the production. Ramirez also brought convincing acting to the moment of Peter’s denial of Christ.
John Downes, playing Jesus, was at his strongest with “I Only Want to Say” as he speaks to God, recognizing he is about to be betrayed, condemned and crucified. This moment powerfully reminds us that Jesus was a man struggling with doubts before coming to accept God’s plan for him.
“King Herod’s Song,”by James Maxted was great fun to watch.The song is among my favorites in the show and Maxted had a grand time with his character and the humor in the lyrics.
Caiaphas (Joshua Wilson) and Annas (Dan Bellotte) each had strong vocal moments among the priest’s songs, though Wilson’s’ extremely low notes were among those too quiet to be distinct.
The orchestra had some spotlight moments as well. Standing next to Milton Rodgers, the enthusiastic conductor, was Bill Schillinger on guitar, who drives the rock sound of the orchestra. Betsy Hooper had a violin solo which beautifully supported Mary Magdalene’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Among my favorite moments was when two members of the ensemble plugged in instruments and bridged the gap, connecting the orchestra to the cast. Brandon Klus played screaming guitar and Carlos Ramirez slapped the bass for “Simon Zealotes.” The up-tempo number gets the ensemble dancing along with Simon, played by a feisty Sarah Jane Scott.
The orchestra was within view of the audience for the whole show, sharing one side of the stage floor to the audience’s right. The placement had benefits and liabilities. As a rock opera, watching the orchestra/band is part of the audience experience. The downside was the sound balance was not conducive to hearing singers, even those with mics. There was no baffle to block the orchestra from overpowering singers who sometimes struggled with both upper and lower notes required for this musical. Perhaps some kind of sound-damping curtain might also block the lights from the orchestra pit which negated the blackouts at dramatic moments in the show.
An audience member in front of me by a few rows had his phone on during the show. He was reading the lyrics as the songs were sung. It was an interesting solution to be able to get the lyrics, but distracting to those behind him who could not escape the light from his phone.
Michelle Matthews keeps costumes simple, combining minimal references such as the priest’s prayer shawls to modern clothes, indicating what roles those characters might equate to today. The ensemble playing the disciples wear wrapped and tied tunics over their contemporary street clothes.
Choreographer Vickie Taylor clearly rehearsed the ensemble dances well. When soloists were singing their hearts out, they still danced in step with the ensemble. Focus was generally centered on the platforms, but the spaces on each side were home for the ensemble dances, utilizing the space well.
Lighting design by Ken and Patti Crowley was excellent, guiding the audience’s focus to the action, supporting the mood of songs and setting the tone of the piece. The Superstar finale was a gala of lighting with follow spots, colored lights flashing in different areas above the audience, drawing the audience into the moment and reminding us that the result of Jesus’ resurrection is what the story is about and impacts us today.
The 22-member cast, the orchestra, and crew have clearly worked hard to bring Prince William Little Theatre’s Jesus Christ Superstar to the stage. Get your tickets while you have the chance.
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays through March 22, 2015 in the Gregory Theatre in The Hylton Performing Art Center on the George Mason University campus -10960 George Mason Circle, in Manassas, VA. For tickets, purchase them at the box office, or online.