Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Ray of Light Theatre's wonderful new production of the show turns the politics up to 11. First, they have chosen an all-female cast. As the directors' note states, women in 2018 are "at the helm of major movements for change," just as Jesus and his disciples were agents of change in their time. It's an inherently political act without being a provocative one, choosing instead to make a feminist point in subtler ways. Second, directors Eliza Leoni and Shane Ray have set their production in our world of neverending news cycles, live video feeds, and social media run rampant. A lyric in "Superstar" says, "Israel in 4BC had no mass communication." But we do, and this production imagines how the story of the founding of one of the most powerful social, political and cultural movements in human history might play out in the time of Twitter, Facebook, and cable news.
It's not a giant creative leap to imagine the story of Jesus in a contemporary media setting; after all, the composers already planted the idea in the text. (e.g., "Buddha was he where it's at, is he where you are? Could Mohammed move a mountain, or was that just PR?") But the team at Ray of Light have taken this foundation and built upon it a multi-layered onslaught of video and social media feeds (from video designer Erik Scanlon) that appear on four large monitors, part of a bold staging design from Kuo-Hao Lo of scaffolding, platforms and chain link fencing that serve this production perfectly. (As does the energetic and imaginative lighting design by Christian Mejia.)
The energy doesn't stop with the technical aspects of the show. No musical succeeds without great music, and though there are occasional moments of singers struggling with pitch (most notably in the final rendition of "Superstar" where it's possible the vocalist was having trouble hearing herself), the cast throws itself into the songs with a passion that mirrors the visual vigor onstage. The score has always been one of my favorites, and the five-piece band serves it well, playing with verve and precision.
The cast is, for the most part, terrific. Janelle Lasalle brings a soulful and careworn quality to the role of Jesus (or Shesus, as the hashtag goes), showing us a man who is exhausted after years of fighting Rome and must now face final struggles with both the local power structure and God the Father, culminating in a gorgeous and tragic rendering of "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)." Courtney Merrell as Pilate is more than equal to her challenge, performing the role with an imperiousness that both belies and reveals the character's softer, more forgiving side. Hayley Lovgren's Herod has one of the most popular songs in the show and (thanks in part to how Leoni and Ray chose to stage the scene) knocks it not only out of the park, but out of orbit. As Caiaphas, the deep-voiced high priest, Heather Orth is a revelation, bringing humor and humanity to what is usually a very dour character, all the while nailing her lower-register vocals.
My only quibble with the casting is the selection of Jocelyn Pickett as Judas. She is clearly a skilled performer, but she lacks the hard-edged, bitter and disillusioned quality the character of Judas needs in order to serve the dramatic arc of the story.
Fortunately, that minor casting mishap does not detract significantly from the overall excellence of what Ray of Light has accomplished. They describe themselves as a "community theatre," but you'd never know it from the professionalism of every aspect of this productionand especially from the intelligence and thoughtfulness they put into their interpretation of this demanding work of musical theatre. Their collective powers of imagination are evident everywherein the choreography, the costumes, the design, and especially in the media elements that drive home the hazards of celebrity, mob rule, and life in the Twitterverse. (#ResistRome, lower third graphic reading "Jesus & Apostles Storm Jerusalem," live camera feeds, and much, much more.)
If it isn't already, Jesus Christ Superstar should be one of San Francisco's hottest tickets. I suggest you get yours now.
Jesus Christ Superstar, through June 9, 2018, at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays - Saturdays at 8:00p.m., with 2:00p.m. matinees on Saturday, June 2 and 9. Tickets are $20-42.99, and are available at www.rayoflighttheatre.com.