A Vision Worth Reviving

Review by Joe Eriole

Castaway Productions’ presentation of Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Sean Matthew Whiteford, accomplishes something notable in any revival of a well-known and oft-performed show: it offers the audience something more than they expected. 

Superstar began its life as  a 1970 rock opera album based on the last week of the life of Jesus, with intriguing and modestly controversial perspectives on the thoughts and motivations of history’s most famous protagonist, his loving followers, and his iconic antagonist, Judas. The musical debuted the next year. 
The compositions, while identifiable in the genre of epic rock anthems and glam rock, hold up exceptionally well. So much is asked of the vocalists, and so much musicianship is possible for the musicians, that in the hands of performers who are up to the task, the result is always an impressive aural experience. 

In Whiteford’s production, everyone on stage can really sing, and every cast member brings style and energy to their performance, such that audiences will find themselves watching more than just the leads as they survey the stage.  Likewise, all the players in the pit have real chops on their instruments, are on stage throughout the show, and now and then double as actors. 

If this production was your introduction to the show, the strength of the cast and the band would be enough to commend it. Its real triumph, however, might be among the large number of audience members who already know the show well. Because familiarity can make revivals seem tedious, and indeed, recent stagings of Superstar, even on the Great White Way have lacked the energy and power the show has the potential to deliver. This production is a terrific theater experience.

Whiteford’s director’s notes emphasize his desire to pay homage to the show’s origins as a concept album, and alerts the audience to the notion that the show will seek to capture the energy of the music in it’s raw, organic power. It is unabashedly as much a concert as a play, but that emphasis does nothing to diminish the production as a total sensory experience. The costuming is casual, gritty, and stylish, the set spare but purposeful, and the lighting reminiscent of an intimate music hall concert show; bright, alive and in motion like the cast, but never a distraction.

Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s concept has done much to shape modern popular culture’s view of it’s central characters, Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene. Focusing, as it does, on Jesus’ life, rather than taking a position on the theology he later inspired, allows the play to work as a very poignant human drama whatever your faith perspective may be, so long as the heavy water of the Jesus, Joseph, Magdalene triangle can be carried by the performers. Here, Whiteford, as Jesus, Henry George Staats III as Judas, and Jasha Woodall as Magdalene, give us that to be sure.

Jesus and Judas are exceptionally challenging vocal parts, and the show can frankly be unwatchable if these two key roles are not filled by actors who can own every note. Whiteford and Staats are each more than up to task. They are engrossing on stage together. Whiteford’s Jesus is equal parts empathy and passion; Staats’ Judas is full of pathos and rage, and both exude the pain that renders the human story tragic.

As Magdalene, Woodall delivers a performance best described as beautiful. She is a joy to listen to, and an emotive actress throughout, whose plaintive cries at the end the play, in a unique and agonizing take on the final tragedy, are inspired both in concept and delivery. One of the play’s signature songs, I Don’t Know How to Love Him, is strongly performed by Woodard with heartfelt sincerity.

Woodard and PJ Kraus, as Peter, deliver one of the most moving performances of the show on Could We Start Again, Please. this song, during which Kraus plays guitar and and Woodard plays piano, was not on the original studio album, but became part of the lexicon of the show early in its life as a stage and film event. The deep poignancy of the song and delicacy of their performance are a strong counterpoint to the relentless race to the tragic denouement of the play.

Other notable performances are turned in by Dean DiMarzo and Logan Callahan as Caiphas and Annas, respectively, who match the distinctive vocal notes of those characters while also accompanying with menacing guitar.
The two magistrates who passed on Jesus’ fate, Herod and Pontius Pilate, are played by Briana DeVol Cermak and AnnChris Warren respectively, who each give star-turns in their roles. Warren’s Pilate rages and pleads with riveting fervor, and Cermak’s Herod, while sharply offering lyrics no less insightful than any other character in the play, also gives us a welcomed dose of brilliant comedic relief. 

There is a wonderfully staged saxophone duel performed at the highest tier of the set scaffolding by ensemble members Dara Looney and Erin Hebert, which adds tremendous energy to one of the show’s strongest ensemble pieces. The ensemble is nearly always on stage, unfailing in their energy, sharp in their choreography, and powerful in their supporting vocals.
This is a well-wrought and finely performed production. It runs through Sunday September 15 at The Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck. Tickets are extremely limited and advanced purchase is highly recommended for the closing weekend.

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