Review: ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ by Pamoja Productions at Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis

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Pamoja Productions’ presentation of Jesus Christ Superstar is an entertaining spectacle of dance, song, and music. Valerie Mills Cooper directs this version of the 1970 rock opera with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. It seems appropriate that the show, loosely based on the last days of Jesus, is performed in the spacious sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis.

Jesus Christ Superstar plays through April 22 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis. Photo courtesy of Valerie Mills Cooper.
The cast of Pamoja Productions’ Jesus Christ Superstar, which plays through April 22 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis. Photo by Terry Day.

Todd Jones dominates the stage as Judas, with a strong physical presence. In the opening number, “Heaven on Their Minds,” he is full of fury and passion, singing his anger to the audience as he paces across the stage. He points his finger in anger at Jesus (Jim Ballard) during “Strange Thing, Mystifying” and “Superstar,” furiously arguing with Jesus. He gives his most powerful performance in “Judas’ Death,” holding his head in his hands as he contemplates his betrayal. He ends on the floor, wrapping a noose around his neck, howling in agony.

Looking significantly older than the Biblical Jesus, Jim Ballard at first glance seems a surprising choice. Indeed, it took a few moments from his first appearance to realize who he was. But he gives the role a quiet strength, and a beautiful singing voice. In “Hosanna” he leads the ensemble as a conductor, waving each section. As Simon (John Sellman) sings joyfully of achieving power and glory in “Simon Zealotes,” Ballard looks on from the side in dismay. Responding in “Poor Jerusalem” he quiets the excited crowd, singing softly but firmly, “to conquer death, you only have to die.” He gives his most powerful performance in “Gethsemane,” contemplating his death. It is a heartbreaking song, soulfully mournful at his fate. At one point, he drops to his knees trembling. His last words at the Crucifixion are heartbreaking, begging for water. Ballard makes the moment absolutely moving, while standing completely still.

Sheri Kuznicki Owen brings dignity and love to the role of Mary Magdalene. When Judas confronts Jesus about his relationship with the former prostitute, she comforts Jesus, holding him while singing “Everything’s All Right.” She gives her most emotional performance in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” her love evident in her face and voice. She quietly pleads in “Could We Start Again, Please,” praying it could end in any other way.

Alex Davis gives an arrogance to Pilate. In “Pilate and Christ” he mocks Jesus, marching off the stage in disgust at Jesus’ quiet, dignified response to his questions. In “Trial Before Pilate” he is conniving and politically savvy, trying to spare Jesus’ life while threatening him with violence. Again, he throws his hands up and struts off at Jesus’ silence.

Clyde Carr is a hoot as Herod. In “King Herod’s Song” he starts off fun-loving, dancing in joy, and proudly showing off his crew. When Jesus says nothing, he gets angry and orders him to “get out, you son of God!” He then dances offstage. He offers a nice touch of humor in an otherwise serious musical.

Johnnie Rowel as Caiaphas and Chuck Gender as Annas bring a sense of menace to the priests, especially Rowel with his deep baritone. Their careful plotting in “This Jesus Must Die” is chilling in its scheming. They are unemotional in “Blood Money,” laying out the facts for Judas while he debates whether to betray Jesus. Unlike Ballard’s stillness, theirs is terrifying.

The costumes and props, done by Sondra Harris, Tracy Millward-Bourne, and Regina Dorsey, are simple but incredibly effective, as is James Bourne’s set. Judas begins the show looking very much like a radical in a ragged brown shirt and bell-bottom jeans, later changing into a white shirt and pants. Jesus wears a long white tunic with a brown scarf, sandals, and socks. Mary is in a white robe, with a multi-colored front and a headdress. Caiaphas and Annas look intimidating in long, black robes. Pilate looks regal wearing a blue tunic with a red velvet cape wrapped around it and a golden diadem. Herod wears a red silk dressing gown with a large golden chain. As part of Herod’s crew, the ensemble wears contemporary outfits with brightly colored wigs. Baskets, cups, and plates of food serve as the main props. A large, slightly bent cross in the back and a small step work as the primary visual piece. A table appears and is removed as necessary. Small boxes serve as stools.

Charles Gross and Ben Harris do a great job with the lights and sound, helping to reflect the musical’s shifting atmosphere. In “Gethsemane” the lights turn down low, heightening Jesus’ heartrending emotional state. During the Crucifixion scene, the lights underscore the tragedy before fading to black. The sound works well, allowing the performers’ voices to project throughout the church. In several scenes, including Jesus’ trial, the ensemble sings from the back of the church to powerful effect.

Harold Sims does a wonderful job as Music Director, leading the band in the music. With two keyboards, a guitar, bass, and trumpet, the band, sitting to the left and slightly in front of the stage, blends well with the actors’ singing, strong and distinctive without being overwhelming. The band captures the varied musical rhythms, from groove-worthy rock beats to soulful melodies and tender love songs.

Valerie Mills Cooper has done a terrific job as Director. The actors navigate the stage and each other easily. They sing with passion, hitting the right emotional notes at the right time. Everything comes together to create a fun show that demonstrates community theater at its best. A short run, this show closes on April 22, so see it while you can!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

Jesus Christ Superstar plays through April 22, 2018, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis – 333 Dubois Road in Annapolis, MD. Tickets are available at the door for $20.