The musical Jesus Christ Superstar always seems ripe for a reconceptualization by directors who want to move it out of its biblical setting. The current production at A Contemporary Theatre of CT (ACT) is no exception. In his program note, Director Daniel C. Levine talks of his obsession with Margaret Atwood’s book, The Handmaiden’s Tale, and its subsequent HBO series. There are parallels between the novel’s dystopian and totalitarian society and the Roman occupation of Jerusalem. However, Atwood’s work is not finely ingrained in popular culture. References to the book, primarily in the differently colored outfits worn by some ensemble members, and the symbolism they denote, can be confusing to audience members unfamiliar with the novel.
Still, even with this hurdle, the ACT staging of Jesus Christ Superstar is mostly an enjoyable and entertaining production.
The book by Tim Rice focuses on the last days of Jesus. The story explores the personal relationships and struggles between Jesus, Judas, Mary Magdalene, his disciples, his followers and the Roman Empire. As with most Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice collaborations, there is no dialog. The songs move the show forward, delineate characters and provide the backdrop for some of the highly charged stagings of the musical.
The score by the duo was their first for the Broadway stage (the pre-Broadway concept album was the top selling album of 1971, more popular than Carole King’s Tapestry). It is my personal favorite from all the musicals composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The cast members deliver each of the celebrated songs, which include “Heaven on Their Minds,” “What’s the Buzz,” “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” and “Superstar” with power and brilliance, Sometimes, during the performance, I just closed my eyes and let the songs and the music from the dynamic pit band just wash over me.
Brett Stoelker, as Jesus, comes across as rather tame, with little affect for someone who is supposed to be a charismatic leader. Likewise, Caitlin Kinnunen’s Mary is almost invisible outside her musical solos. Avionce Hoyles gives a complex and angst ridden performance as Judas. The real treat are the scenes with the triumvirate of Ben Cherington, as The Priest; Katie LaMark, as Annas; and Isaac Ryckeghem, as Caiaphas. They skulk around the stage as one, ready to unleash their diabolically calculating plans on Jesus and his followers. Their voices blend and complement each other beautifully.
Director Daniel C. Levine keeps the show lively and engrossing. The musical is at its strongest when he focuses on the central thrust of the story. In addition to positioning the show as a parallel to The Handmaiden’s Tale, some of his other choices are, well, a bit strange. In “King Herod's Song,” Herod is portrayed as a Las Vegas lounge singer with four sidekicks all dressed in head to toe leather body suits. In “Superstar,” Judas comes out dressed as a hipster lounge crooner.
Sara Brians provides timely, though limited, choreography that strengthens the production with urgency and spirited movement.
Scenic Designer Jack Mehler has created a bleak landscape of despair that is augmented by Lighting Designer Penny Jacobus, Costume Designer Claudia Stefany faithfully recreates Handmaiden garb to go along with an assortment of other interesting and provocative designs.
Sound Designer Nathan Rubio blends music and voice together that is thrilling to listen to. Only occasionally does the band overwhelm the performers.
Jesus Christ Superstar, a production, with all its imperfections, is still worth catching, playing at ACT through April 17.