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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

Jesus Christ Superstar
Desert Stages Theatre


Sean Mullaney
The Desert Stages Theatre limited run production of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar does justice to this classic show, with a rocking cast and a smoking band. Loosely based on the final days of Jesus of Nazareth, this production features Sean Mullaney giving a soulful take in the title role. Originally announced to play in DST's smaller Actors Café theatre space, the production, fortunately, was moved to the larger Cullity Hall which serves the large cast and large band well. And even though this is a limited run, with just six performances over two weekends, it is a fairly fully staged production, with vibrant costumes, make-up and lighting plus enough choreography to warrant a full-fledged extended run. This production is recommended for anyone who is a fan of the show or rock music in general.

With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar started out as a 1970 concept recording before ending up on Broadway in 1971. A movie, numerous tours, and three Broadway revivals followed. With minimal dialogue, the sung-through show follows the Gospels' accounts of the last week in Jesus' life. The musical swiftly covers many events, including Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, Mary Magdalene's devotion to him, the last supper, his betrayal by Judas, his trial by Pontius Pilate, and the crucifixion.

The combination of Lloyd Webber's impressive and inspired rock music and Rice's lyrics that touch upon the personal conflicts and struggles that Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene encounter, catapulted the two songwriters to fame and a Tony nomination for Best Original Score. The show's best known tune is the chart topping hit "I Don't Know How to Love Him" but other songs, including "Superstar," "Everything's Alright" and "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)" are just as memorable.

While the majority of the conflict-ridden numbers revolve around Judas' change from devotion to his ultimate betrayal of Jesus, and Jesus' internal struggles, it's nice to see that Desert Stages is treating the show more as the rock opera that it was originally written as, instead of a traditional musical theatre piece like many other theatre companies try to turn it into. With a cast made up of singers with rock music voices, and a band conducted by the always noteworthy Mark 4man, the combination of blaring horns, funky guitar licks, and wailing rock falsettos give this production a full out sound that comes at you like no other show I've ever seen at DST.

With an almost eerie somberness and large doses of passion, humility and strength, Sean Mullaney demonstrates a nice intensity combined with a wide musical range in his portrayal of Jesus, with appropriate rocker squeals as well as nice elements of sadness and agony. The amount of anguish and questioning in his forcefully sung "Gethsemane" perfectly shows how Jesus questions his mission even when he clearly knows he is about to be betrayed and ultimately die. Mullaney's expressions show Jesus' flaws, his conflicted nature, and the uncertainty of his actions. It is an expertly delivered and sung performance.

With a brooding presence and an antsiness that shows off his dissatisfaction, Josh Kontak makes Judas a convincing tragic character, at first warning Jesus not to go too far, then questioning the influence of Mary Magdalene, and ultimately deciding that Jesus must be stopped. Kontak's voice easily manages the tricky range of Judas' songs, and his looks and mannerisms echo the heavy, conflicted lyrics. Chelsey Louise gives Mary a soothing and loving touch, and her earthy, gutsy and gritty vocals give a brassiness to her songs. It isn't your usual delivery of Mary's numbers, but it works with the deep tones grounding the lyrics with a realism that sets Mary apart from the others and makes her more of an outsider than I've noticed in the numerous other productions of this show I've seen. Her delivery of "Can We Start Again Please?" is especially moving.

In a crisp suit and dark sunglasses, Matt Newhard makes an imposing Pilate. Yet, even beneath the dark shades we see the man who doesn't quite know what to do with this so-called King, even when the people are screaming for Jesus' execution. His aloofness only adds to his commanding presence, and the steely emotion he displays in the trial scene when Jesus is being whipped is disturbingly stunning. In the ensemble are a couple of hard working Phoenix actors, Devon Nickel and Rick Davis, who have appeared in numerous shows across the Valley this season. For this production they both play numerous characters, from priests to apostles, with ease. Also of note, Daniela Castro, who plays the woman who questions Peter about his relationship to Jesus, has a clear, distinctive voice and a notable stage presence.

The intimacy of the theatre allows the many emotional moments in this show to be especially moving. Stripped away of just about every pretense, with no elaborate sets to get in the way, the production lets the music, lyrics and story firmly take center stage. Directors Justin Heffner and Mullaney don't add any camp elements to the production and also keep the cast seated on one side of the stage throughout most of the show, which adds an effective "Greek Chorus" element to the proceedings. There is a nice combination of both a large amount of looseness and a sense of urgency in the staging that works well with the thrust of the show. No choreographer is mentioned, so I'm assuming Heffner and Mullaney provided the simple yet effective dance movement. Costume, hair and makeup designer Lindsey Brown includes a wide range of styles from flower child to heavy metal rocker and hippie, along with plenty of dark eyeliner, which ties in nicely with the tattoos, mohawks, ear and nose piercings that the cast members sport and gives the whole production a modern rock update. Chris Caracciolo's lighting design uses lush reds combined with evocative shadows to paint some creative scenes.

The band features some impressive playing, with particular note of Jason Davis, Dallas Fisher, Ben Foos, Heffner and Michael Brandt on trumpet, trombone, bass, and guitars, respectively, since those instruments are heavily featured in Lloyd Webber's orchestration. The 12-piece band might be smaller than some other productions of this musical, but under 4man's conducting as well as his and Heffner's musical direction, it is full, distinctive and very loud. Before the performance I attended the ushers even offered ear plugs, though they weren't necessary.

A few quibbles: the staging of a few key scenes, including Judas' death and the shuttling of Jesus from Pilate to Herod and back again aren't staged fully enough to clearly understand what is going on. The issue with these scenes, and a few others, can also be blamed somewhat on the lack of any substantial dialogue in the show. Also, for some reason, they've opted to cut the last few minutes of the show that includes the crucifixion scene, Jesus' last words on the cross, and the final musical moment with Mary and the apostles reflecting on Jesus' impact and importance on their lives, instead having the show end after "Superstar."

Still, even with these few shortcomings, Jesus Christ Superstar at Desert Stage Theatre is a moving production with a remarkable cast and an exceptional band.

The Desert Stages production of Jesus Christ Superstar runs through August 24th, 2014, with performances at 4720 N. Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are available at www.DesertStages.org or by phone at (480) 483-1664.

Directors: Justin Heffner, Sean Mullaney
Musical Directors: Mark 4man, Justin Heffner
Band Conductor: Mark 4man
Lighting Designer: Chris Caracciolo
Sound Design: Lindsey Ihrig
Spotlight/Sound: Matthew Villarreal Costume / Hair & Makeup Designer: Lindsey Brown
Cast:
Jesus: Sean Mullaney
Judas: Josh Kontak
Mary: Chelsey Louise
Pilate: Matt Newhard
Caiaphas: Justin Heffner
Annas: Devon Nickel
Peter: Chris Chavez
Simon/ Herod: Robby Staupt
Priest 1: Rick Davis
Priest 2: Michael Lesuer
Soldier: Sam MacDonald
Old Man: Tyler Hainlen
Maid by the fire: Daniela Castro
Apostles: Rick Davis, Tyler Hainlen, Michael Lesuer, Devon Nickel and Sam MacDonald
Ensemble: Charrlye Barley, Lindsey Brown, Daniela Castro, Britanee Perkins, Barkley Romero, Jen Taber and Jordan Yampolsky


Photo: Wade Moran

--Gil Benbrook


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