When it comes to Jesus Christ Superstar, a little bit of spectacle is expected. It’s a rock opera focused on the last dramatic days of the savior of humankind, after all — huge sets, elaborate costumes and larger-than-live dance numbers are par for the course.
The Bobdirex production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice classic is a departure from the norm.
Director Bob Harbin’s staging of the production is simple, earthy and raw. It relies on a minimalist set, simple costuming and a haunting lighting design that lends an at-times ethereal ambiance to the action on stage. Harbin’s decision to strip away the excess gave some talented actors a real chance to shine, as the spotlight was entirely on their performance.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” focuses on the last week of Christ’s life, from his and his followers’ arrival in Jerusalem to his trial before Pontius Pilate and ultimate crucifixion.
The show opens with Judas Iscariot lamenting Jesus’ growing popularity. He worries his friend’s celebrity is becoming more important than his teachings. As Judas, actor Joe Doyel shows the most depth and development of any of the actors on stage — and appropriately so, given the story is more about Judas’ internal struggle to understand his role in Jesus’ life than it is a chronicling of the son of God’s rise to fame.
Doyel’s voice is perfect for the part, gritty and full of anguish befitting of Jesus’ friend-turned-betrayer. Judas’ tortured acceptance of the infamous pouch of silver is one of his finest moments, the tightening of the pouch around his neck serving as a not-so-subtle foreshadowing of what’s to come for our antagonist.
Unfortunately, an otherwise stellar performance by Doyel is hindered at times by a need for better enunciation. Given that the plot is driven by Judas’ thoughts and actions, understanding his lyrics is imperative.
Julia Perillo gives a standout performance as Mary Magdalene. At 17 (only 16 when she was cast), this young woman sings with a maturity well beyond her years.
Perillo’s chemistry on stage with Patrick Clements as Jesus is just sensual enough to remind you that Mary Magdalene is, by profession, a prostitute but also sweet enough to reflect an affection toward her messiah that goes much deeper than the physical. She wrestles with these feelings in one of the show’s best numbers, “I don’t know how to love him.”
Like so many aspects of this production, Clements’ portrayal of Jesus is unexpected. His approach at times exudes wide-eyed innocence, bringing a human element to a character often depicted as more self-assured — pained, perhaps, but rarely confused. Clements’ choices give depth to the character, suggesting at times even the son of God was bewildered by the staggering events leading to his death on the cross.
Presenting any show with a minimal set and basic costuming is a risk — by stripping away distraction, it invites the audience to home in on aspects of the performance where minor errors might typically be overlooked while a wandering eye is focused on a detailed set piece or flashy costume.
Thankfully, this ensemble’s vocals do not disappoint. Michael Lasley’s beautiful bass voice as Caiaphas deserves special mention, and Ty Stover is fantastic as Pilate.
The lighting design was also notably well-done — a challenge, no doubt, given how little of a set light designer Matt Cunningham had to work with. One minor criticism: Back-lighting the characters to create a dramatic silhouette was done a few too many times in succession, and yet an argument for the trick is understandable, as it created just the right effect on each occasion.
Choreography and overall staging were hit and miss throughout — in key moments (most notably the last supper), Jesus was hidden by the blocking of other characters directly downstage of him, which distracted from what could otherwise have been more powerful scenes.
Though unpolished in its opening weekend, this show has real potential. It runs through Sunday at Marian University. More info at bobdirex.com
Noelle Steele is editor of the Daily Reporter. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org