Review: ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at the Little Theatre of Alexandria

Lightning has struck in the form of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Little Theatre of Alexandria (LTA) this past Saturday night. Taking on the epic, and challenging, rock opera, Director Jim Howard swings for the fences and absolutely scores. With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar chronicles the final days of Jesus Christ and goes beyond just the gospel books to examine the complicated choices made by some of the world’s most famous names: Pontius Pilate, King Herod, Mary Magdalene, Judas, and, of course, Jesus.

Rishabh Bajekal (Jesus of Nazareth) and Thea Simpson (Mary Magdalene) in Jesus Christ Superstar, now playing at the Little Theatre of Alexandria. Photo by Matt Liptak.
Rishabh Bajekal (Jesus of Nazareth) and Thea Simpson (Mary Magdalene) in Jesus Christ Superstar, now playing at the Little Theatre of Alexandria. Photo by Matt Liptak.

Set in modern day, this LTA production took advantage of staging, costuming, and technological devices familiar to any office worker today in order to challenge the audience to reflect in a new way on the movement that the biblical figure Christ brought about.  “What the Buzz?” featuring Jesus and the fantastic Ensemble using cellphones is one particularly good examination of how the constant connection of modern life could have spread the words of Jesus immediately to a fanatic following, while “The Arrest” shows the more sinister side of social media, instantly sharing and delighting in the misfortune of others.

At the heart of this musical is the suffering, sacrifice, and choices of two men: Jesus of Nazareth, played by Rishabh Bajekal, and Judas Iscariot, played by Carlos Antonio Ramirez. With rocker screaming voices (Judas especially), they both laid it all on the line, gambling their souls for a cause they both were willing to die for. In “Heaven on Their Minds,” Ramirez walked a wonderful line between mocking and despair as Judas set the stage for the events to come and in “Damned for All Time” Judas’ conflict scorchingly bubbled to the surface of Ramirez’s eyes. For Bajekal as an equally strong Jesus, his shining moments came as a soft foil to Judas. “Poor Jerusalem” and “Gethsemane” in particular allowed Bajekal to quite literally shake with the agony of his choices and full obedience to the path his father had laid out for him.

Equally conflicted in understanding her feelings was Mary Magdalene played by the silkily voiced Thea Simpson. From her very first musical riff, the entire audience melted at the sound of her voice. I’m struggling to recall a sweeter or more wistful version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and found myself achingly agreeing with “Could We Start Again Please?” because of her stunning performance. Instead of choosing distrust or worry, Simpson’s Mary falls headlong into hopeful (but frightened) love. It requires an innocence not often seen in depictions of Jesus’ favorite. If you need no other reason to see this production, go for her.

Another knockout performance was Cody Boehm as Simon Zealotes. Her performance in the musical number bearing her character’s name, “Simon Zealotes,” was supercharged with sass and had me watching her every time she took the stage. She, along with Mary Magdalene, and Peter (Michael Gale) formed a devoted trio that did an excellent job of slowly slipping into despair, watching with horror as “Trial Before Pilate” and “The Crucifixion” took place.

Gleefully puppeteering these sinister moments were the gravelly Caiaphas (Ryaan Farhadi), the oily Annas (Amy Lapthorne), and the mocking Priest (Emmy Kampe). Set on destroying this Jesus threat, they wormed their way from manipulation and bribery in “This Jesus Must Die” to trials, torture, and death in order to bring about their desired end. Pontius Pilate (Hans Dettmar) too, in the end, succumbed to their will and the building demands of the crowd, getting a few impressively full-throated rocker screams in there himself, but it was Andy Izquierdo as King Herod who managed to steal the show in just one number. Taking on the vaudevillian “King Herod’s Song,” this campy and exercise-themed rendition called for a jazzercise humiliation of Jesus unlike anything I’ve seen before. Izquierdo’s hair flicks and judgmental glances complemented the ridiculous premise of an already quirky number and were perfectly balanced by the peppy sweat-breaking of Tyrone Brown Jr., Alyssa DeGrace, Katie Kellenberger, and dance captain Janae Witcher.

Cody Boehm (Simon Zealotes) in the center with the ensemble in Jesus Christ Superstar, now performing at the Little Theatre of Alexandria. Photo by Matt Liptak.
Cody Boehm (Simon Zealotes) in the center with the ensemble in Jesus Christ Superstar, now performing at the Little Theatre of Alexandria. Photo by Matt Liptak.

Behind the impressive cast was an equally devoted, but far more numerous, crew. Of particular note was the set design by Matt Liptak and lighting design by Ken and Patti Crowley; choreography by Michael Page and Liz Colandene; and costume design by Jean Schlichting and Kit Sibley, all of which did a great job of balancing the relentless pace of events and immense emotional weight of the show with the corporate America setting of INRI Inc. Together with Director Jim Howard, Musical Director Christopher A. Tomasino, and countless others, LTA mounted a production to be proud of indeed.

Community theater in D.C. at its finest, Jesus Christ Superstar by the Little Theatre of Alexandria is made for longtime fans of the musical, as well as audience members discovering it for the first time. It’s a character-filled, passionate production recommended for anyone who is looking for a Superstar in the modern world.

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

Jesus Christ Superstar runs through August 11, 2018, at the Little Theatre of Alexandria – 600 Wolfe St, Alexandria, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 683-0496 or purchase them online.