Sunday, November 19, 2017
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Review: Stage West cast brilliant in production of 'Jesus Christ Superstar'

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The musical Jesus Christ Superstar is very loosely based on the Bible stories of the last days of Jesus Christ. But the message in the musical is quite different from that of redemption and salvation, the bedrock of modern Christianity, instead being about the price of fame and the mind-boggling vicissitudes of human behavior.

For that reason, some may find Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's 1970 sung-through rock opera disturbing, even offensive. For others, the parallels to the dangers of mob psychology and to current politics, set to a hard-driving rock score, will be inspirational. That appeared to be the reaction of the great majority of the opening-night audience at Stage West Community Playhouse in Spring Hill, where the musical plays through May 22.

Director Andi Sperduti Garner's presentation of the now-classic musical is brilliant on several levels — the casting of women in traditional men's roles, for example — and the cast members' performances are often so effective and moving that it seems almost sacrilegious to applaud when they sing. But many are abundantly worthy of standing ovations.

That's certainly true of Victoria Primosch as Judas Iscariot and Anothony Cromartie as Pontius Pilate. Their powerful voices and passionate deliveries (completely in line with the composer/writers' intentions) make these two traditional villains into sympathetic characters, giving the audience a new way to look at the story itself. Judas is depicted as part of an arbitrary God's perverse plan, who bemoans the need for a betrayer who is necessary for the fulfillment of Jesus' mission to be a martyr. Judas is also shown as the voice of reason. Why spend money on precious oils to anoint Jesus' feet when it could buy food for the poor? Judas asks. Why taunt officials and endanger themselves and fellow Jews instead of going about their business quietly? Judas wonders.

Pilate is depicted as a sympathetic, caring ruler who really doesn't want to kill Jesus, but finally gives in to demands of the crazy crowd.

Tall, heavy-set Keith Surplus is striking as Jesus, a genuine human being, his expressive face and plaintive voice expressing his bewilderment with both his sometimes undependable, inattentive, uncomprehending followers and his demanding Father in heaven. Surplus' Jesus is no gentle giant, but a man with a man's feelings, fears, anger and resignation.

Note that director Garner wisely didn't try to disguise Primosch's gender, adding layers of modernity and universality of that tragic figure's situation. Primosch fulfilled that role magnificently, with her powerful, gospel-style voice and precise articulation. Some lines were lost during Act 1 when she sang in a low register. But in Act 2, she brought all lines up to her natural register and made each word completely audible. Now that is a pro for you.

The story isn't linear, and it varies wildly from the biblical story in many places. So those familiar with the traditional story may be a bit confused. The composers included many familiar incidents — the triple denial of Jesus by the Apostle Peter (a handsome, virile Anthony Agnelli), for example — but put a whole new twist on the Last Supper, showing Jesus' followers as being indifferent to him and reworking the way Jesus distributed the bread and wine to make it more cynical than inspirational. Again, director Garner cast women in traditional men's roles, making them seem a natural (and perhaps historically accurate) part of Jesus' followers.

Brady Lay is effective as the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas, his deep, rumbling base adding an ominous feel. Kristen Ballard is a sweet and tender Mary Magdalene, though her tempo sometimes seems a bit rushed. Lynda Dilts-Benson makes a powerful Jewish High Priest Annas. Jay Garcia presents a great look as Simon the Zealot, and Angelena Burrow is appropriately quirky as King Herod, but, unfortunately, their mic placement and volume was off-kilter on opening night, so we missed their best lines, which are crucial to the development of the story.

Garner's light design — dappled in Garden of Gethsemane scenes, a threatening red during violent parts, moody and foreboding throughout — enhanced the feeling that this isn't a happily-ever-after plot. Dilts-Benson's spare set, with its central staircase (remember from Ragtime?) and a few benches and low platforms, provides an unobtrusive way to present, not upstage, the story.

And, almost as striking as the characters are Nancy Kilburn and Eileen Bernard's costumes, a mix of 1960s hippie and 2016 grunge for Jesus' side, and, for the Roman soldiers, grim, long, black leather-like coats, reminiscent of Nazi Germany's top officials. Priests and judges wear an intriguing hodgepodge of long, formal tuxedo tailcoats, iridescent robes and kinky Cyndi Lauper-like short, ruffled skirts, giving a mix of playful and strange.

Carol Ballard's eight-piece orchestra keeps up the pace, but it could be even more effective if Steven Mureil were allowed to bring up his guitar sound, especially during the heart-wrenching, emotional 39 lashes scene, where the guitar should be loud enough to make our ears bleed.

Coming in at just under two hours, the Stage West version of JCS is right on the money, but seems all too short for those of us who just can't get enough of the music and those wonderful voices and characterizations.

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