REVIEW – Jesus Christ Superstar – Stage 1 Theatre

With a show like Jesus Christ Superstar, which I like and have seen many, many times, the key to making it work is to pack it with massive talent and offer something new with regard to interpretation. That’s a tall order considering the demands of the score and that it’s one of the most commonly performed shows (or certainly it seems that way.)  Stage 1 in Newark has stacked the cast with some extraordinary talent and in many cases given us a fresh approach, making it a real standout production.

Let’s start at the tippy top. I could literally talk a day and a half about Judas. HE is seriously brilliant. BRILLIANT! He brings a set of pipes that seem only probable if some badass deal with the devil had gone down to procure them and he brought the acting chops with him in spades. SPADES I TELL YOU. I’m rather attached to a strictly “traditional” vocal interpretation of Judas’ songs and often times the liberties an actor takes with them are met with disappointment. Too frequently actors seem to sing “look what I can do” instead of telling a complex mans’, difficult story through their choices. But THIS Judas freakin’ owns every flourish, punctuation and inflection. His runs and pauses are specific, intentional, real, supported, and executed to a degree that really does seem just totally impossible. Every note, every single choice makes sense and conveys so much. He gives the most nuanced and clear interpretation I ever recall seeing. He keeps us in the moment and focused on his struggle and his side of the story. It’s truly compelling. HE is a true superstar in this production.

Jesus was also a stunning addition, commanding extremely high impact from his choices and voice. While normally a pretty impressive and pivotal moment to begin with, Gethsemane absolutely brought down the bloody house. A spectacular version and an absolute, genuine show stopper. The audience could not WAIT to applaud. The same expertise and emotion are seen throughout his performance and he is really well paired with Judas; who, I’m not sure I mentioned… is brilliant.

While the ensemble as a whole wasn’t maybe the best or most even I’ve seen, I was gifted with some additional standout talent. One of the most fully developed and thus sympathetic Pontius Pilates I’ve seen, along with an Annas that I expect to see on the Voice  in the very near future, and a King Harrod and First Priest were no slouches either, all helped to round out a commendable pool of performers.

Technically there were some things I had trouble buying into which was unfortunate, given the excellence of the main cast. While the video concept was a bold move and ultimately a very interesting addition (it cleverly solved some of the most challenging theatrical parts of this show) the temptation to over use the medium did trip up the production and distract at times. Points for doing something I hadn’t seen done though and driving home the idea of the perspective that this story is being told from.

There were some tragic lighting flaws too that induced a few winces, and some seemingly sloppy costuming. Admittedly, I never get the costuming in this show, it’s just written in a way that’s never really conducive to any kind of clear wardrobe style both helpful/consistent to the show vision and easy to dance in.

Choreography had some really bright moments for sure, but generally felt flat and forced. Along with costumes I do think this is one of the more challenging parts of the piece too; finding a way that isn’t cheesy or too overly camp for long sections of music is a bear and I see the dance and movement element miss the mark more than make it for JCS.

The Orchestra was tight with the exception of some stray horn here and there, but the balance and micing (which can make or break a show like this) were great and I have to give major kudos to the Electric Guitar player who took those tremendous riffs I so love and skillfully pulled them off with requisite ‘tude and talent.

Thanks to a cast of principal characters that can sing the absolute CRAP out of this show and back it up with nuanced and emotive acting, I left really liking this version instead of feeling disappointed by some of the less solid production elements.  A solid 4 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara, worth enduring every minor misstep for the terrific abilities of the cast and new thoughts to think as a result of their committed performances. Jesus Christ Superstar plays only through April 26th at the main theater at Newark Memorial High School in Newark.

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