A man, rises to power from nothing, gaining hundreds of thousands of followers along the way, whose fame and status eventually became the center of controversy for his inseparable fate with the unity and peace of his nation.
Yes, some would say this man challenges the faith of many. No, as much as it sounds alike, I’m not talking about any presidential candidate from this heated election season. And yes, this is a story we all know by heart.
With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar tells the journey of Jesus during his final week, from his arrival all the way to crucifixion, with a focus on the evolving relationship between him and his loyal apostle Judas Iscariot. Originally started as a concept album with a Broadway debut in 1971, this audience-favorite sung-through musical is now the newest production at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie, PA, only this time the real superstar is its theatrical company, Stage62.
If heaven has a rock band, Duquesne graduate Jeff Way is certainly the lead singer of the gang. Playing the title role with a sensational voice, Mr. Way took the audience on a hero’s journey fueled with passion and emotion–his solo number “Gethsemane” in Act II was sincerely moving and full of halo. But you see, Jesus isn’t the only rock star you’ll meet. Musical theater powerhouse Mary Johnson-Blocher conquered the role of Judas–a role that’s traditionally played by male actors–and proved that she’s the real cherry-on-top within the first ten minutes of the show. Her portrait of Judas’s conflicted journey was the moving momentum of the story, and her final betrayal scene at the end of Act I was easily one of the spine-chilling moments of “all time’.
Jesus Christ Superstar is a show about memorable characters. And the amazing casts at Stage62 delivered these characters gloriously. Nina L. Napoleone plays the beautiful Mary Magdalene with a voice of clearance and color. Jeff Danner plays the evil High Priest Caiaphas on a rich bass tonality that will give you goosebumps every time he sings. Larissa Jantonio’s Annas, another traditionally male role, is genuinely wicked and full of sharp edges. And finally, just like all the other Stage62 productions, every single ensemble number in the show is a highlight and deserves all the applause of the night.
Behind this innovative production is the creative mind of singer and performer Seamus Ricci in a directoral debut at Stage62. Through the revolutionary casting choice of having female actors playing traditionally male roles, Mr. Ricci perfectly captured the diversity of talents that are deeply rooted in the Pittsburgh theatre community and gave this timeless musical a fresh and revitalizing look. Due to the sung-through narrative nature of the show and its vast variety of characters, at certain scenes the staging might feel a bit overwhelming if the audience is not familiar with the plot, but overall the dramatic texture is never lost. Throughout the night a recurring theme of “”emerge”, “encompass” and “contrast” will lead the audience through this constantly changing journey of power and faith on stage, and when the house suddenly becomes an extension of the stage with an atmospheric choral build-up, you can just feel the tension in the air!
Supporting the storytelling is the Orchestra, lead by Music Director Thomas Octave, playing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s electrifying rock score faithfully live on stage, and elevating the sound of the show to a heavenly level. Angela Essler’s choreography brings home the biggest surprise of the night with a dosage of great energy and star-dust–in the number “Herod’s Song” in Act II where King Herod, played by IUP student J’Quay Lamonte Gibbs, totally brought the house down with a bombshell performance that eventually became one of the biggest show-stopping moments of the night.
But a story is never really alive without its theatrical counterpart. Jeremy Eiben’s costume design masterfully incorporates the modern clothes into the ensemble’s costumes with an abstract twist and gave this ancient account a 21st century make-over. Garth Schafer’s lighting design beautifully reflects the pulse of the story and set the base line of all the emotions. But the biggest bone-chilling and most surreal moment has to go to the end of the show, when a gigantic cross literally erects on stage and the entire scene of crucifixion, accompanied by a hauntingly realistic sound design by Soundcolor Productions, is being replayed in front of the audiences’ eyes, you just can’t help but wonder, is this still theater, or are we actually traveled back in time?
After the show I had a small chat with the director Mr. Ricci himself, and naturally we both agreed that the timing of bringing back this ALW classic now couldn’t be more perfect. With so much chaos and hatred and violence and senseless acts happening around the world everyday now, people desperately need a beam of hope and faith to keep us steady and strong. But the themes presented in Jesus Chris Superstar are more than just hope and faith. The show is also about power worship, about moral conflict, about betrayal, and mostly importantly, about abandonment and returning home.
No matter where we stand, the direction we are walking to is always the same. So why not walk together? But sometimes walking in life still feels like a shot in the dark. A wise man once said, “happiness can be found, even in the darkest of the times, if one only remembers to turn on the light”. Perhaps this time, Jesus Christ Superstar is the only guiding star we will need to get through the thunderstorm, and come home to the light.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall until July 31st. For tickets and more information, click here.
Special thanks to Stage 62 for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Image 42.