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In 1970, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice released upon an unsuspecting world their third collaboration, a “rock opera” that depicts the passion of Jesus Christ based on the Gospel of St. John. Although the album “Jesus Christ Superstar” launched a handful of hit singles and a Broadway musical the following year, musical theater purists loathed its mixing of musical and theatrical forms, while some Christians considered it sacrilegious and blasphemous. Today, of course, those battles have long been forgotten – and “Superstar” sits among a pantheon of musicals that audiences flock to every time a tour hits the road.
Yet despite its popularity and proven box office record, few local producers schedule “Superstar” into their seasons – thanks primarily to a difficult score to sing and its large cast. The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter, however, eagerly accepted the challenge with a timely production that opened on the Christian holy day of Good Friday. The result, though, reminded me of the battles waged 40 years earlier that divided theatergoers into two camps, reflected by two people sitting to my left on opening night: those who adored it, and those who disliked it immensely.
And me? This cranky critic falls somewhere in-between.
To be honest, I prefer productions of “Superstar” in small, intimate theaters such as The Encore. With the actors only a few feet away, it creates a more powerful and emotional experience for the theatergoer and allows the performers to concentrate on their characters rather than playing to the cheap seats way up in the balcony. And so I went into The Encore with certain expectations – and was surprised to discover a production that was at war with itself stylistically.
That opinion was formed as I walked into the theater and observed a set by Toni Auletti that is part industrial (steel scaffolding) and part I’m-still-not-sure-what, as one side of the backstage wall is painted to look like brown rocks and boulders, while the pattern on the opposite side has shapes that define nothing recognizable. (It’s not a wall or a building, I thought. And since Jerusalem – where the plot unfolds – sits among a few valleys and hills, a mountainous background didn’t make sense, either.)
The visual confusion continued immediately upon the arrival of the actors, as their costumes by Thalia Schramm are a mishmash of styles and periods – ranging from earth-toned hippies circa 1970, Mafia gangsters from the ’20s or ’30s, German cabaret performers, and peasants from pretty much any era. (In fact, as the show opened, I initially thought “Superstar” was being invaded by a drably outfitted cast of hippies from the usually more colorful “Godspell.”)
But where the conceptual breakdown is most noticeable are the polar opposite approaches taken by the actors in tackling their roles.
The actors in the primary roles – with a few exceptions – perform as if they are appearing in a concert production rather than a musical; they sing their roles with the appropriate vocal intonations, but their faces and body language reflect none of the emotions.
This is most hurtful in Mary Magdalene’s solo, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Generally one of the show’s knock-out numbers, actress Mia-Carina Mollicone is low-key in her delivery – and mostly missing any sense of passion or emotion.
Jesus, too, is problematic. Curly-mopped Aaron LaVigne sings the role quite well (and looks the part), but his face often reveals nothing about the man underneath. Nor do we get more than a peek at the magnetic personality that drew thousands to Jesus’ preaching (and frightened his enemies).
Dan Cooney, however, stands out as Judas – partly because he’s one of the few principal actors who digs deeply into his character’s complex personality. We watch his inner turmoil as he struggles to keep Jesus focused on his work, while he concurrently fights his inner demons to betray him. (The audience also heard Cooney grapple with a faulty microphone on opening night, and some of those hard-to-reach high notes!)
The ensemble and some of the supporting cast members, though, are seemingly in a totally different production of “Superstar.” Across the board, they’re lively, energetic and passionate – and their faces and body language help tell the story. (It’s called “acting.”) Plus, their strong, individual voices weave together to create beautiful harmonies throughout the production.
In fact, that’s the production’s greatest asset: its voices. John Sartor’s Pilate is among the show’s strongest performances, and his second-act songs with LaVigne, “Pilate and Christ” and “Trial Before Pilate,” are especially riveting.
Also impressive is Michael Lanning as Caiaphas – despite a few wobbles in the lower registers – and the women in “Everything’s Alright.”
Despite the missteps, co-directors Cooney and Barbara F. Cullen deliver some fine moments, including the imaginative “Overture” that brings to life the Stations of the Cross. The lighting here by Daniel Fowler – as with most of the production – adds character to the show (although the strobe light later becomes annoying and adds little to the storytelling). But one also has to question the directors’ jarring and over-the-top rendition of “King Herod’s Song” performed with smarmy gusto by Keith Allan Kalinowski. (Yes, it earned big laughs on opening night, but it’s thematically a universe away from the rest of the production.)
Finally, the four-piece orchestra under the direction of Anna Lackaff – with only a few minor problems – sounds much larger. And choreographer Kristi Davis moves the large cast around a very small space quite nicely.
‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
The Encore Musical Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Thursday-Sunday through April 18. $28. 734-268-6200. http://theencoretheatre.org