By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
It is the last days of Jesus Christ (Jeff Way) as told by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice in their rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and things are grim in Jerusalem. It’s just days before the execution of the so-called King of the Jews. Christ is racked with guilt, anger and frustration. It’s not his most godly moment. Hosanna in the lowest.
Considering the plump volume of source material, i.e. the Bible, there’s not much to the plot. Judas Iscariot (Mary Johnson-Blocher) is pulling Jesus one way; Mary Magdalene (Nina Napoleone) is pulling Him another. The three-sided relationship is not unlike a love triangle, as lower-case L love competes with capital L Love. Things go FUBAR pretty quickly. You may have heard the story before. But spoiler alert: Things don’t end well for Judas. And whether or not Jesus got a happy ending is up to interpretation.
Since it’s a rock opera, there is little to no dialogue that is not set to music, but there are some great songs. “Heaven in Their Minds” sung by Johnson-Blocher as Judas opens the show. It’s a fantastic number and Johnson-Blocher belts it out with the best of them.
There is a moving rendition of “I don’t know how to love Him.” It’s an emotional moment and beautifully rendered by Napoleone.
Near the end of the second act, there is a stand out over-the-top performance by J’Quay lamonte Gibbs as Herod. Picture Rocky Horror’s Dr. Frank N. Furter condemning the savior. Ironically, the big, showy character has the most down-to-earth lyrics. He simply begs Jesus to prove himself worthy, with lines like, “Prove to me you’re no fool…walk across my swimming pool.” If only Rice had written more lyrics like that.
The titular song, “Superstar” was superbly performed.
The orchestra, conducted by Thomas (appropriately named) Octave, was tremendous. The highest praise goes to the orchestra and the ensemble for blending together musically (pay attention to the caveat).
There are a few things wrong with the production. The cast was excessively large, almost unwieldy. There were unnecessarily extraneous set pieces moving about far too frequently on the stage. It was not only distracting but dangerous. There were, at least, four accidents opening night. A head collided into a prop window hanging from the ceiling, a woman was nearly squished by a moving staircase, and two actors tripped over the main platform positioned in the middle of the set. Let’s call it opening night jitters and hope the cast will get it together later in the run, but when Jesus was hoisted up for the crucifixion I feared that Way would be actually die on the cross. There was a high probability that the cross would topple into the audience and take out the first row.
The acting was big and broad, but there was a lack of emotion in many of the ensemble. A few members of the ensemble were just trying to get through it. Acting tip: Never assume that if you’re in the background no one can see you. We can always see you.
Also, the show seemed rushed, even at two hours long. Though he does a great job, I wanted more Peter (Chris Martin). The fault lies with Rice and Webber. The creators could have fleshed out the character more and we would have gotten a stunning portrayal of the man who denies Christ.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” gets a very mild recommendation. If you go, keep your eyes and ears on Mary Johnson-Blocher, Nina Napoleone, J’Quay lamonte Gibbs they are worthy of your full attention.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” is a Stage 62 production at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, 300 Beechwood Blvd., Carnegie, PA 15106. For more information, click here.