Breathtaking ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ opens the Moonlight Season
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, May 16
From the opening electric guitar riff and curtain drop till its ethereal final moments, Jesus Christ Superstar, playing at Moonlight Amphitheatre through May 27, is an artistic and powerful staging of the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera.
The 1970 book, which loosely follows the Gospels’ accounts of the Passion while carrying some creative liberties and a 70s setting, is told from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, an apostle who is frustrated with the mounting fervor of Jesus’ followers as well as his relationship with prostitute Mary Magdalene. Judas is not alone in his fear of the Romans’ backlash should it continue; the High Priest Caiaphas and Pharisees have similar concerns. As the musical progresses, despite a great deal of conflict on the part of Judas, arrangements are eventually made for Jesus to be arrested and he is castigated before Pontius Pilate and King Herod, then flogged and crucified.
As in the 1973 film version (which follows a camera and acting crew to film in the desert), director Steven Glaudini has chosen to take a dual approach with staging, incorporating a mix of more traditional elements (Jesus’ chiton and the set’s Doric columns and architraves come to mind) with other contemporary ones (most notably neon colors and TV static effects in the projections, ensemble costumes with floral and patchwork prints alongside tassels, and a tinsel curtain).
Leading the Moonlight Stage production are Brian Justin Crum as Judas and Richard Bermudez as Jesus. Both performers are exceptional. Crum starts the show on a high note, both literally and figuratively, with his solo number “Heaven on Their Minds,” abounding with flourishes and distortion alongside flawless control, and is particularly delicious in “Damned for All Time” with Caiaphas (DeAndre Simmons) and Annas (Zane Camacho). Crum is a treat to enjoy throughout the production; not only is his voice resonant, but he is also compelling to watch as he beseeches Jesus to see the error of his ways, betrays him, and then falls into heartbreaking despair at his own actions.
Bermudez, who also has incredible vocal chops, plays an earnest and conflicted Jesus who ultimately acquiesces to the fate of his crucifixion, shining in particular in the engrossing “Poor Jerusalem” and desperate “Gethsemane.” Stylistically, he leans into some nontraditional option ups, but does so with finesse and heart and the choices read well thanks to the intensity of his acting performance.
Other standouts include Monika Peña as Mary Magdalene (whose belt and stage presence are phenomenal!), DeAndre Simmons’ booming Caiaphas, and Jeffrey Ricca’s soaring Pontius Pilate. I was also captivated by the choreography in “Simon Zealotes,” designed by Jimmy Locust and performed with energy and style by a cohort of featured dancers, as well as the vocal prowess and emotional acting depth of the large ensemble and tight, talented band.
It is worth pausing here to admit that I came into the audience a Superstar connoisseur. I hear Yvonne Elliman’s vocal scoops when I think about Mary Magdalene’s songs and Carl Anderson’s angst lives rent-free in my head. While I cannot even begin to count the number of times I’ve seen the film version, I also carry fond memories of seeing Ted Neeley as Jesus Christ on tour, singing the soundtrack loudly with my family, and appearing in a production myself a few years back.
In some ways, this set me up for distraction, as Glaudini leaned into a few similar elements from earlier iterations such as palm fronds and a freeze frame effect during “Hosanna,” the tableau during “The Last Supper,” and the swimwear-clad ragtime extravaganza, “Herod’s Song.” I personally didn’t love “Trial by Pilate” which, with a continually circling ensemble and relative lack of dynamics, felt a bit static for me, nor did I feel the vocal/dance tracks in the larger-than-life “Superstar” were thoughtfully considered, as the background angel vocals sounded out of breath at times.
That said, these small considerations aside, Jesus Christ Superstar’s staging is fresh, the cast and band (under the musical direction of Lyndon Pugeda) are talented, and the scenic design, costumes, light, sound and projections (by Kevin Depinet, Renetta Lloyd, Jennifer Edwards, Brandon Boomizad, and Blake McCarty) each get a chance to shine in this space that Glaudini has created.
I can honestly say that this version not only met, but exceeded my expectations. I’d see it again in a heartbeat. Jesus Christ Superstar runs at Moonlight Amphitheatre through May 27.