Saturday, May 19, 2018

"Jesus Christ Superstar"

Jesus Christ Superstar
Andrew Lloyd Webber (Music); Tim Rice (Lyrics)

Janelle Lasalle as Jesus, with Apostles
For a week, our smart phone and TV screens have been filled with the scenes of burning tires, hurling rocks, and flying bullets as bodies fall on the border of Gaza and Israel.  All day, those same small and mega screens have shocked us once more with a grieving mother’s agony as yet another school shooting has occurred.  And now, sitting in the Victoria Theatre on a Friday night, four screens suddenly emblazon with TV stations carrying pictures and reports of mob riots and of police lined in riot gear on the streets of Jerusalem ... only these modern-appearing scenes are of events occurring over two thousand years ago.

As the stage before us now erupts into a crowd of angry protestors being confronted by helmeted and armed police -- all captured live on the screens above from various angles by roving cameras -- the crowd suddenly parts and silences as a serene figure appears, giving healing touches and knowing looks of understanding to those on either side. 

Jesus has appeared, but this Jesus is not the one in the picture books of our childhood.  Jesus is a black woman.  In fact, in this visually eye-popping, brilliantly conceived, musically electrifying Jesus Christ Superstar production by Ray of Light Theatre, all twenty-two members of the stunningly talented cast are women of many hues and races.  A Sunday School story from the book of Matthew received in the 1970 concert version a bold retelling by a still-young Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics). The musical that in the ‘70s rolled, rocked, and rattled both those opposed and those enthralled now bursts onto the Ray of Light stage with an all-female cast that speaks to our times more than ever. 

In a moment of history where young women are stepping forth to be the leadership voices of  #metoo, Black Lives Matter, #NeverAgain, and Time’s Up, Ray of Light Theatre once again proves that this is the Bay Area company that puts on the musical stage what most other companies would never risk, probably not even consider.  Giving the female voice to the hero, the lover, the villain, the zealots, the government leaders, and even the angry mobs brings a new strength, relevance, and insight into this age-old story. We soon forget that we are looking at something from the past and instead peer into a new reality where young women are forcibly taking their place as the movers and shakers of our future’s history.

Incredible voices and inspired performances aside for the moment, a standing ovation must first go to the creative team behind the ROL production.  Eliza Leoni and Shane Ray as co-directors have launched Superstar into a whole new orbit from other productions I have seen over the past forty-plus years.  Time and again, the co-directors push boundaries to ensure the ancient story has immediate recognition and relevance to our times.  Scenes erupt with the spontaneity of a crowd angered to the point of no return or of the desperate homeless and disenfranchised who suddenly reach out for help to survive.  Other scenes such as Peter’s three-time denial to pursuing and persistent reporters, as the pitting of Jesus versus Judas in face-to-face confrontations, as the betrayal by Judas and Judas’ later suicide, or as the Las Vegas style reincarnation of Judas singing “Superstar” are all individually arresting in design, blocking, and impact.

Along with impressive directorial moves comes a lighting design by Christian Mejia that time and again illuminates the stage’s evocations, emotions, and events in ways that adds much meaning and muster to already powerful scenes.  The overall lighting is a show unto itself, with changes both subtle and sudden that grab attention without ever being distracting. All is captured in the Erector-Set, two-level scenic design by Kuo-Hao Lo where metal reigns supreme in the skeletal framework and in a chain-link fence that at times holds the angry, beating, wailing mob at bay.

Impressive too is the sound design Theodore Hulsker in scenes like Jesus’ lashings or in unseen but heard crowds of background rioters and clashing police.  The videos designed by Erik Scanlon and the live video coordination by Patrick Nims both make the four, televised screens pop with action that is as current as right now.  Maggie Whitaker’s costumes tell stories and provide insights in ways where no sung words are needed (often with sewn-in satire and irony galore) as in the high style dresses worn by the decision-makers of Jesus’ fate (Caiaphas, Annas, and Pilate) – one in red, one in white, one in blue. 

As a musical that began in 1970 as a concept album and was performed in the early years with full orchestra, a choir, a children’s choir, and soloists who simply stood when they sang their parts, Jesus Christ Superstar is first and foremost about the music itself, with no spoken words in the book.  As Music Director, Ben Prince understands that every note has a purpose in re-making this biblical story one for our times.  From Stephen Danska’s soul-grabbing electric guitar to the heart-throbbing bass of Travis Kindred, the alerts of Taylor Rankin’s drums, and the director’s own both mesmerizing and menacing keyboards (with Keyboard 2 alternating between Ken Brill and Dave Dobrusky), Ben Prince has ensured that Webber’s music more than does its own part in making this a story and an evening not to be forgotten soon.

Maita Ponce as Mary Magdalene & Janelle Lasalle as Jesus
The story is one most people know, whether or not they are believers in its veracity or significance.  Jesus is being pushed by followers to become a king and to take on the hated Romans.  One of his closest disciples, Judas, is getting more and more nervous that the foreign powers-to-be will reign havoc on the homeland Jews if Jesus does not quickly reject these zealots as well as the intimate relationship he seems to be developing with Mary Magdalene, rumored to be a prostitute.  In the meantime, the Jewish high priests, Caiaphas and Annas, are also becoming highly concerned about threats to their own power and position by what they see as mob control led by this upstart Jesus.  They are more than ready to find a way to stop him and intend to get the Governor of Judea, Pilate, to help them do so.  All they need is someone to tell them when and where to find Jesus alone, away from the fawning crowds, so they can put him under arrest.

Janelle Lasalle
As Jesus, Janelle Lasalle brings a voice and demeanor that can be comforting and healing as she tries to calms the apostles’ frantic inquiries in “What’s the Buzz?”  Her vocals and countenance can also be terrifying and full of fury as Jesus confronts the moneychangers, merchants, and finally the solicitous crowd of hangers-on in “The Temple,” with a piercing “There’s too little of me ... Don’t crowd me ... Heal yourselves!”  Ms. Lasalle is far from a god and totally human when in the arms of a comforting Mary Magdalene (the beautifully voiced Maita Ponce).  Jesus’ evident exhaustion, fear, and pain is gripping in scenes of torture and eventual death (again made all the more breath-taking and gut-wrenching by Christian Mejia’s lighting).  Overall, she brings to Jesus a capacity to love, to live, and to lead in ways exciting and unexpected.

Jocelyn Pickett
But Jesus Christ Superstar is at the heart less about Jesus and more about the betrayer, Judas, the one who is driven to save the Jews from a feared destruction Judas fears is bound to occur, given Jesus’ meteoric-rising popularity.  From her initial piercing cry that only climbs in apoplexy to a frightful, “Listen, Jesus, do you care for your race?” Jocelyn Pickett is a Judas who commands the stage and the story in every respect.  Time and again, her looks of suspicion, of accusation, of hurt, of anger, and of self-doubt are only matched and then excelled by a voice that tears one’s heart out in the pain, the fear, and the defeat heard in notes sung with absolute brilliance.

But even Judas can be almost funny in one of several other light-hearted scenes of an otherwise ardent and impassioned unfolding of ever-serious-and-sad events.  When Judas appears reincarnated on a stage and in the glitz and glitter of Las Vegas with three skimpily clad back-ups singing “Superstar,” Jocelyn Pickett -- without ever one ounce of vocal distortion -- screeches and finally screams her questions to Jesus (“Did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?”).

Speaking of glitz, glitter, and fun, Hayley Lovgren is hilarious with her own three back-ups in a “King Herod’s Song” where she looks more like a drag queen on a Castro stage than the King of Galilee who is tempting Jesus to perform one of the famed miracles.  Equally funny at times and also on the edge of scary at other times is the deep, dark-voiced Heather Orth as Caiaphas.  Her Head Priest more than once causes eruptions of titters in the audience with her cocktail-swizzling, her contemptuous “humphs,” and her tight jerks of the head as the Caiaphas considers how to rid Jerusalem of the Jesus curse. 

The encouraging taunts and snippily sung encouragements of the High Priest’s assistant, Annas (Christen Sottolano) are a wonderful pairing to Caiaphas’ haughty manners; and when the two are joined the all-in-white Pilate (Courtney Merrell), the three are all dripping with their fancy dressed piousness.  As Pilate, Ms. Merrell’s “Pilate’s Dream” is marked by a crystal-clear voice that is haunting in its prediction “And then I heard them mentioning my name, and leaving me the blame.”

Throughout the evening, the fast-paced and exacting choreography of Alex Rodriguez is energetically, flawlessly performed by the often stage-filling ensemble of apostles, rioters, merchants, or faithful followers.  As Simon Zealotes (Melinda Campero) cries out with a voice glorious in its sung admiration and persuasion to Jesus, “Christ, what more do you need to convince you that you’ve made it.”  At the same time, a constantly pressing, moving, shifting crowd presses in with choreography as powerful as their own sung, “Christ you know I love you ... Did you see I waved?” 

Time and again, the choreography – like all other aspects of this Ray of Light Theatre production -- captures the ecstasy, the urgency, the hopelessness, and ultimately the hopefulness of the historical moment being portrayed in the songs and scenes of Jesus Christ Superstar.  And all the while, one cannot help but be moved and motivated by this all-female cast that puts its own unique and important mark on a story we already knew. Through them, we walk away understanding that theirs is a story of the kind of courage, leadership, and sacrifice that young women (and men) are taking even now to the streets of a nation in need of a jolt out of its complacency.

Rating: 5 E, “MUST-SEE”

Jesus Christ Superstar continues through June 9, 2018 in production by Ray of Light Theatre at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco, through October 17, 2015.  Tickets are available online at or

Photo Credit: Ray of Light Theatre

1 comment:

  1. Very informative with just the right to keep you wanting to read more, well done!!
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