Jesus Christ Superstar
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar roared into its La Playhouse opening looking none the worse for wear after a week and a half of shaky previews due to a flu bug that went through the cast (and understudy Matthew Rossoff was on for Mark Cassius at the opening). "If you want to enjoy a soothing lozenge during the performance," a voice declared right before the downbeat of the overture, "you may unwrap it at any timethe band is loud enough that you won't bother anyone."
The overture began and you know whatthe voice was right.
Director Des McAnuff's work is familiar to San Diego audiences. He served twice as artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, and over the years locals have seen a lot of his creative output. They know that when he is good he is very, very good, but there are also times when he is bad. Here, he's at the top of his form. Yes, he's up to a lot of his old tricks again: Robert Brill's set looks like something you might find up the road at Legoland (mitigated by a striking set of rolling blinds, a "news crawl" in lights, and interestingly showy videos designed by Sean Nieuwenhuis), and Howell Binkley's effective lighting nevertheless shares a basic style with his work on Jersey Boys (and employs maybe one too many backlit entrances for my taste).
But, what makes this production of Jesus Christ Superstar into more than a pleasant, if aurally loud, evening in the theatre is the care in which the storyline is presented. Abetted by Lisa Shriver's energetic and enervating choreography and Paul Tazewell's carefully crafted costumes, Mr. McAnuff sets Messrs. Webber and Rice's passion play firmly into the religious and political struggles of the first century of the Common Era. While audiences might be familiar with the outline of the story, the show's visual elements never let the narrative sag.
The character motivations are also clear, something that is easy to lose in this particular telling of the tale. In this version, Judas Iscariot (Josh Young) is not a revolutionary but more like a political adviser. He very much wants Jesus (Paul Nolan) to create a heavenly kingdom on earth, and he thinks he knows how to maneuver Jesus into power. But, Jesus, while aware of the politics of the situation, seems mostly uninterested in them, and Judas, hoping to spur Jesus into action, decides to allow Jesus to be captured by the religious establishment, as personified by Caiaphas (Marcus Nance) and Annas (Aaron Walpole). The priests see Jesus as more of an annoyance than anything else, but in order to have him executed they need the cooperation of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate (Jeremy Kushnier). Pilate senses that Jesus isn't really a criminal, so he tries, unsuccessfully, to pawn the case off on Herod (Bruce Dow), the Jewish monarch. In the end, Pilate orders the crucifixion, and Jesus achieves more of a superstar status than anyone ever imagined.
The only major character whose motives are mushy is Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy). Hers is the only female in the storyline, and her relationship, both with Jesus and his disciples, is an inconsistent one. I suspect, however, that the fault here is more one of how the Webber/Rice team framed the story, as Mary Magdalene seems to be needed mostly to sing the pretty ballads in the score (and Ms. Kennedy rates highly in that regard).
The clarity extends to the musical numbers as well. I doubt that I've heard many performances where the vocal diction was more precise, a combination of excellent work by the cast and an outstanding sound design by Jim Neil. Many of the roles are vocally demanding, and it is a shame that Brent Carver, the original Pilate, had to withdraw in favor of vocal rest (Mr. Kushnier is a much-more-than-adequate replacement, however). On opening night, the only cast member who struggled a bit was Mr. Nance, the basso profundo, whose basso notes were fine but who struggled with reaching for the profundo notes.
The precision of the staging and the company's responsiveness to it are reminders of how an organization such as the Stratford festival benefits from the work of performers who play straight plays as well as musicals and who perform both classic and contemporary texts.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs through December 31 at the the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. Tickets ($80 - $110) are available online at LaJollaPlayhouse.org or at (858) 550-1010. The production begins performances on Broadway on March 1, 2012.
La Jolla Playhouse presents The Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of Jesus Christ Superstar, lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Des McAnuff, with the assistance of the following creative team: Choreographer: Lisa Shriver, Musical Director: Rick Fox, Set Designer: Robert Brill, Costume Designer: Paul Tazewell, Lighting Designer: Howell Binkley, Video Designer: Sean Nieuwenhuis, Sound Designer: Jim Neil, Associate Choreographer: Bradley "Shooz" Rapier, Associate Musical Director: Laura Burton, Dramaturg: Chad Sylvain, Fight Director: Daniel Levinson, Stunt Coordinator: Simon Fon, Casting Director: Beth Russell, Technical Director: Elissa Horscroft, La Jolla Playhouse Production Manager: Linda S. Cooper, La Jolla Playhouse Associate Producer: Dana I. Harrel, Associate Lighting Designer: Tristan Tidswell, Associate Sound Designer: Jesse Ash, Assistant Director: Lezlie Wade, Assistant Choreographer: Marc Kimelman, Assistant Set Designer: Brandon Kleiman, Assistant Costume Designer: Laura Gardner, Assistant Lighting Designer: Kaileigh Krysztofiak, Assistant Fight Director: Kevin Robinson, Dance Captain: Matthew Rossoff, Fight Captain: Julius Sermonia, Stage Manager: Brian Scott, Assistant Stage Managers: Meghan Callan, Melissa Rood.
The cast includes Matt Alfano, Mary Antonini, Karen Burthwright, Jacqueline Burtney, Mark Cassius, Bruce Dow, Ryan Gifford, Kaylee Harwood, Chilina Kennedy, Jeremy Kushnier, Mike Nadajewski, Marcus Nance, Paul Nolan, Melissa O'Neil, Laurin Padolina, Stephen Patterson, Katrina Reynolds, Jaz Sealey, Jason Sermonia, Julius Sermonia, and Lee Siegel.
Follow Bill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SDBillEadie.