Monday, January 12, 2004

Jesus Christ Superstar

In preparing for his third production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Davis Musical Theatre Company director Steve Isaacson set out with one goal in mind: “put great voices on stage with a great orchestra and let people enjoy themselves.”

Judging by the standing ovation from the near sell-out crowd at the Varsity theatre, at the conclusion of Saturday night’s performance, he succeeded.

The 1971 Andrew Lloyd Weber/Tim Rice rock opera, running through February 1, essentially traces the story of Jesus from Palm Sunday through the crucifixion and has enough musical intensity that you need little other than a hint of set and a strong set of singers.

While the story is about Jesus’ last days, the central figure really is Judas Iscariot, who has become disillusioned with all the hoopla surrounding this man he has followed for so long. He feels that the followers of Jesus have become fanatical and unrealistic in hailing him a god. He’s afraid Jesus is starting to believe his own press (“You’re starting to believe all the things they say of you; you really do believe this talk of God is true.”)

As he watches his interactions with Mary Magdalen, his anger at the temple, turning on the money lenders, and growing weary of the cripples asking to be healed, he questions more and more the nature of this man...he sings “I just want to know...”

Judas, like Che in the later Weber/Rice musical “Evita” acts as the moral conscience for the show and one needs to have a strong presence in the role. Director Isaacson has found him in Brian McCann. This DMTC veteran has always given solid performances and he does not disappoint in this production. We feel his pain when she sings that he simply wants to “strip away the myth from the man.”

Fulfilling the promise he displayed in DMTC’s earlier “Showboat,” Tev Ditter makes a wonderful Jesus. This is a human Jesus, one who can be moody, who gets angry, who knows his death is approaching and is afraid, who is disappointed in his followers.

Amber Jean Moore is a long way from Ellie May (“Showboat”) or Sandy (“Grease”) in playing Mary Magdalen, but she’s perfect in the role. She obviously loves Jesus, but this is a new love for her and she can’t quite work out what it is. Her “I don’t know how to love him” was very tender and poignant.

One of the consistent problems of community theatre, especially in a town as small as Davis, is that there are more good women available than good men. Thus what was intended to be a predominantly male show is actually quite female-heavy. Eight of the apostles are women, including Simon (Melody Davi).

Likewise two of the priests are women and Lenore Sebastian as Annas makes you wonder why this hasn’t always been a woman’s part. She handles it with the professionalism she brings to every role. No one in the audience would be wishing that a male had filled the role.

As Caiaphas, JD Diefenbacher, in his second role with DMTC gives a commanding portrayal as the high priest.

Gil Sebastian was born to wear a toga. He plays the anguished Pilate, wanting to wash his hands of the whole business. “If this man is harmless, why does he upset you?”

Michael Miiller brings comic relief with his 1920s version of King Herod dancing with his “Herod Dancers,” Katy Fast, Katherine Gohring, Dian Hoel and Holly Newell, their flapper costumes in stark contrast with the solemnity of the Biblical costumes. (Good work by the always-professional costume designer, Jean Henderson).

The mood of the piece is greatly enhanced by the lighting design of Mike McElroy, whose pools of light for Jesus are particularly good.

Now that DMTC has been so good to Jesus, one hopes that Jesus will return the favor and give them a theatre with good acoustics. As always the Varsity Theatre swallows a lot of the words, especially bad in this show, with the orchestra right on stage. Even the body mics for principals I know from other productions have wonderful diction and project beautifully couldn’t help that problem and the chorus, which could have used a bit more oomph, was very difficult, if not impossible, to understand in spots.

Still, this is a strong DMTC production and provides a solid evening’s entertainment.

Friday, January 09, 2004


Following a devastating battle, a woman mourns the death of her two brothers. Etoclese, who, despise a promise to do so, refused to hand the rule of Thebes to his brother, has been buried with full state honors. Polyneices, who challenged his brother for the right to rule, is left on the battlefield for the dogs to eat.

The woman is Antigone, daughter of King Oedipus. In defiance of the edict of her uncle, the new king Creon, who assumed the reigns of government on the death of Etoclese, Antigone resolves to bury Polyneices with the same dignity accorded his brother.

At the heart of Antigone is an ancient yet timeless conflict: the rights, and the rites, of the individual when they clash with the needs of the state. Creon, newly crowned with a war-torn state to heal, can't afford to have his authority challenged. Antigone insists on dignity for her slain brother. Because she challenges Creon, she must die.

Great principles are at stake here: the rule of the state versus the rights of the individual, human versus divine law and so forth. (“Because I’m the king, that’s why...”) Plenty of parallels can also be drawn, to our current situation in Iraq.

Jean Anouilh wrote his Antigone at the height of the German occupation of France. The play mirrors the predicament of the French people under Hitler at the time. Acme director Dave Burmester, in his notes for the young people’s production of this masterpiece of the modern French stage, is astonished that the Gestapo, who governed Paris in 1943, were willing to allow the play to be produced at all. Perhaps it was because they found the play’s arguments for dictatorship so convincing.

Whether you look on the play from the viewpoint of Creon, trying to establish his authority, or from the viewpoint of Antione, following her conscience and the law of the gods to bury her fallen brother, Acme’s production is certain to evoke discussion about where authority ends and responsibility begins.

The play, directed by David Burmester, is running at the Veterans Memorial Theatre through January 17. It is a visually dramatic piece, with set by Karlee Finch and David Burmester which is stark and effective. The opening red lighting and recorded music (Shostakovich?), along with the precise, militaristic entrance of the cast is stunning.

Maddy Ryen’s “Chorus” is the glue that holds the show together, bringing us up to date with the story to this point, introducing us to the characters, and setting the stage for the inevitable tragedy. She handles the role with the self-confidence of a seasoned actress.

As the determined heroine Antigone, Alicia Hunt took a bit to get into her role, but as she grew more confident, she gave a strong performance. Her lengthy dialog with Creon was a tour de force for both actors.

Andrew Conard was a marvelous Creon, always in control, the tortured king who wants to save his young niece, but cannot tolerate her defiance of his law.

Others shone in smaller roles, such as Stephanie Rickards as Antigone’s beautiful sister Ismene and Dara Yazdani as Haemon, whose love for Antigone also leads to his own death.

James Henderson, as the First Guard gave a very strong performance and brought comic relief to the tragedy.

The cast is rounded out by Genny Moreno as Creon’s page, Shannon Larson-Maynard as Eurydice, Laurel Cohen as the Nurse, and Eric Delacorte and Josh Toliver as guards.

Antigone is a classic Greek tragedy which is as modern as today. At its core, it is a family tragedy about human failings with which we can all relate. As to who is right and who is wrong, it is up to the individual viewer to make those decisions.

The play runs some 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Unfortunately two patrons sat in the row near me and talked audibly through most of the show, making it difficult to become immersed in the story itself because of irritation at the rudeness of these two people. Someone else in the theatre was playing with a mobile phone, whose LCD screen would flash at inappropriate times.