Signature Theatre’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar is an impressive beauty of a rock opera. It successfully takes a Biblical phrase such as, “Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens.” (Lamentations 3:41) to make it a revolutionary statement.
With a fuse set by Director Joe Calarco, Jesus Christ Superstar is about one of the world’s greatest disruptors, as he shakes up a stale world and takes the ultimate consequence for it. And for me, Calarco aims at a new generation of theater-goers who may be much less familiar with a nearly 50-year-old work, so that they can take it as their own.
Calarco has cast actors and singers in lead roles who present the best of what the human voice can do to reach Heaven and also into an audience with ripe, heartfelt renditions of songs of praise, songs of love, songs of torment, and songs of personal doubt. With Karma Camp’s no-sit-still choreography that shows the way a human body can freely depict the spirit of a religious awakening, the same actors and singers are joined by a large ensemble of well-trained athletes (seemingly never in need of an extra breath) able to provide non-stop, well-synchronized movements.
For those less familiar with the musical, it is based upon the Gospels’ accounts of the last week of Jesus‘s life, ending with his crucifixion. The sung-musical, with over twenty musical numbers, depicts spiritual and political issues, tensions, and struggles. It also centers upon the close relationship of Jesus and Judas.
The Signature production of Jesus Christ Superstar comes into view as if we are seated looking down into a Roman area. But this is no ancient Rome, it’s a contemporary one with spiffy, minimalist scenic design by Luciana Stecconi. With stealth, a hoodie and sneaker-wearing young “apostle” appears slowly walking, while a very quiet young man with a guitar is sitting lost in thought. Soon enough, the man with the guitar is identified Judas. Then, after some prayerful moments, all hell breaks loose with a rock band taking over with power chords.
The production features a ruggedly handsome, plaintive-voiced Nicholas Edwards as Jesus. He has a melancholy demeanor with deep soulful eyes that reach out, and then inward, to envelope and connect with others on stage. There is a serene authenticity to him. Yet, when he sing outs against money-changers in “The Temple” or wails out in “The Last Supper,” his delivery overpowers even the electric power of a seven member rock band.
Ari McKay Wilford, as Judas Iscariot, is a moody, conflicted presence. His Judas is a tragic man, dissatisfied with the direction in which Jesus points his new followers. He is also jealous of Jesus’s relationship with Mary Magdelene. His songs bear witness like a sorrowful narrator. There is a down-home roughness in his musical numbers with titles such as “Damned for All Time” and “Superstar.”
Sweet-voiced, sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, Natascia Diaz (I admit, I never get enough of Natascia Diaz receiving the spotlight) is Mary Magdalene. Simply put, her voice is heavenly in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” While she sings, she moves about the stage with a demeanor full of abundant looks of adoration thinking of Jesus.
The never comically challenged, Signature veteran Sherri L. Edelen is King Herod with sharp, mocking sass. She lights up The Max with her Act II musical number, “King Herod’s Song.” It is an unexpected, welcome, over-the-top moment in an otherwise stately production.
Sam Ludwig portrays Annas, one of those against Jesus. His finely calibrated falsetto is especially effective when juxtaposed with Thomas Adrian Simpson as Caiaphas, his baritone-bass voice demanding a rough justice. These two are often joined in song by a solid Kara-Tameika Watkins as a Temple priest.
As Pontius Pilate, the ever-versatile Signature veteran Bobby Smith portrays a man playing with a pivotal role. His heated renditions of “John Nineteen: Forty-One” and “Pilate’s Dream” show his internal conflicts as his voice rises and falls.
The large ensemble is composed of many local DC-area actors. They are like thirsty souls coming to Jesus for water. They approach him with awe. They are supplicants and sinners. They need to touch him or be touched. They move with their eyes in devotion. All-in-all, the ensemble captures the spirit of a religious awakening and rapture.
Distinctive sounds of music come with musical direction by William Yanesh with a seven piece band (that often sounded not like Broadway song-and-dance, but reminded me of Chicago Blues legend Paul Butterfield). The band included piano (Yanesh), reeds (Ben Bokor), horn (Amy Smith), trumpet (Chris Walker), guitar (Jim Roberts), bass (Bill Hones), and drums (Paul Keesling).
The outstanding visuals for Jesus Christ Superstar include the jolt of rock-show lighting by Jason Lyons and projections by Zach Borovay. The costume design by Frank Labovitz consists of loose-fitting, worn-looking modern day dress in darker hues.
Joe Calarco effectively accomplished a vision for Jesus Christ Superstar. He takes what could have been pompous and preachy and – worse yet – stale, and makes Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s work seem dangerous (not quite Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, but you get my point I trust).
Calarco, his designers, and cast have given a nearly five-decade old show some new, fresher “buzz.” The Signature Jesus Christ Superstar captures a great spirit; the spirit of a religious and political awakening.
Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.