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.

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