REVIEW: Jesus Christ Superstar (Theatre at the Center)

Update: Due to a misrepresentation (i.e., error) in our critique of this production, this review has been adjusted to address the inaccuracy.  To Theatre at the Center and the production’s personnel, my apologies.  Scotty Zacher, Editor.

Uneven “Superstar” finishes strong

 

Jesus Christ Superstar - Theatre at the Center 02

   
Theatre at the Center presents
   
Jesus Christ Superstar
  
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by
Tim Rice
Directed by
Stacey Flaster
at
Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge, Munster (map)
through August 8th  |  tickets: $36-$40  |  more info

reviewed by Michael L. Harris

Sitting amongst the mostly 40+ crowd, gathered for the near capacity performance of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Theatre at the Center, I wanted to love this show. The stage-to-movie musical is certainly a familiar one, with two of the songs – the title song and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” – making it to the Top 10 in the 70’s when it first debuted. In the end, however, the show is a mixed bag.

Jesus Christ Superstar - Theatre at the Center 06Musically, the range and quality of voices is quite amazing. Max Quinlan (Jesus) goes from low bass to high falsetto with amazing ease, as does Joe Tokarz as Judas Iscariot, the counter lead.  Problems arise, however, with the gigantic thrust space and the overzealous back-up orchestra that succeeds in swallowing up poor Jesus. These elements tacitly become the superstars; Jesus just a set piece. Given that the score is extremely challenging and the cast is vocally exquisite, it’s unfortunate that dynamically this disparity exists. The actors are isolated and disconnected, both from each other and from the audience. Experts say that much of acting is “reacting,” unfortunately there’s far too little of the latter in this Superstar.

This distancing of the audience is more of a directorial decision than actor disconnection. Indeed, director Stacey Flaster seems to be aiming for distance rather than intimacy.  Objectively, this works with Sanhedrin. When it comes to Jesus, however, one never gets as close as preferred. Indeed, there are moments of splendor, but overall the sheen is more matte than glossy. 

For the most part, the First Act lacks inspiration. After the introduction of the Apostles – which is staged more as a “love in” – there are signs of better performances to come. Audrey Billings‘ (Mary Magdalene) rendition of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” is warm and tender. Larry Adams’ Pontius Pilate is spot-on, giving a sense of both the character’s greatness and shortcomings. Adams’ professionalism and stage presence are quite commanding, accentuating what is missing from Quinlan, whose performance shows adroit characterization but seems better suited for film/TV than the stage. Additionally, Steve Genovese steals the show with his second act opener, “King of the Jews” and Jonathan Lee Cunningham delivers a solid rendition as Simon Peter in his credible “Denial” sequence .

 

Jesus Christ Superstar - Theatre at the Center 04 Jesus Christ Superstar - Theatre at the Center 03

The best staging exists within “Could We Start Again, Please.” Both Billings (Mary) and Cunningham (Peter) are at their best in this number, and the entire cast shines as an ensemble, including Quinlan (Jesus), making this by far the apex of the play.

Barry G. Funderburg’s sound design is flawed.  The centralized speaker system – with no side speakers – creates a situation where the orchestra often overpowers the choral work.

Nikki Delhomme’s costume’s are a mishmash – at times delightful; at other times confusing. Delhomme’s concept of universality through an ancient/modern mix generally works, but what’s up with the dress-with-a-funky-hat combo that the Jesus Christ Superstar - Theatre at the Center 08Sanhedrin wear??? I couldn’t help thinking, as the Sanhedrin descended the massive centralize staircase, of the old Lucille Ball sketch where she comes down the stairs with the huge pile of fruit on her head . (Thankfully these women are much more coordinated than Lucy!)

The make-up design is equally confusing. There must be a method to the madness, but the painted kabuki masking on the Sanhedrin principals amounts to overkill.  Conversely, the quasi clown make-up donned by Herod works .

Flaster’s choreography is generally exemplary, but doesn’t always fill the stage. And in some instances – notably during Judas’ famous negotiations with the Sanhedrin – actually blocks the action.

Kudos to Ann N. Davis’ technical direction – rigging and scene changes move seamlessly.

Deficiencies aside, if you’ve never seen the show, and/or are in a retro mood, Jesus Christ Superstar is worth two hours of your time – especially the powerful resurrection of the second act.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
  
   

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Production Personnel

 

Director/Choreographer: Stacey Flaster
Music Director: William A. Underwood

Light Design: Tim Fandrei
Sound Design: Barry G. Funderburg
Set Design: Christopher Ash
Costumes: Nikki Delhomme

Featuring: Larry Adams, Kevin Barthel, Audrey Billings, Daniel Castro, Lauren Creel, Courtney Crouse, Jonathan Lee Cunningham, Robert Deason, Jim DeSelm, Jeff Diebold, Dan Ferretti, Steve Genovese, Jackie Gessert, Chie Isobe, Benjamin Kirberger, Alex McCray, Ashton Napier, Rebecca Pink, Max Quinlan, Cory Stonebrook, Joe Tokarz, Peter Vamvakas

     

The Cast of "Jesus Christ Superstar"

Cast picture courtesy of Theatre at the Center website

     
     

5 Responses

  1. All of the instrumental music in this production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is performed live. There are no pre-recorded tracks used in this show whatsoever. The musicians’ names are listed in your program. I suppose one may take it as a compliment that our band sounded polished and precise enough that you thought it was a pre-recorded music track.

    Sincerely,
    Rita Vreeland
    Stage Manager
    Jesus Christ Superstar

  2. Right on Harris! Please don’t tell us you get paid to do this. Even if you didn’t read the program (hey-it’s jc superstar-what’s to know?) surely you must’ve been wondering who the men in black were onstage at the curtain call… No? When is the last time you heard a “backing track” tune up before a show? Still nothing? I don’t know – maybe you should try sports….. Kudos to the sound designer and musicians, though.

    • My apologies Mooney and Harris – adjustments have been made to the review to compensate for the mistaken critique. Again, my apologies – Scotty Zacher, editor/founder ChicagoTheaterBlog.

    • I’m sorry you find critic so distasteful. You are right I should have read the program more closely, but I doubt that noting the presence of a live orchestra would have changed the review much, as the critic of the lack of orchestra complement to the actors performance holds….

  3. While I don’t mind criticism of my design work (it’s the nature of the beast)…lighting and sound designers are sometimes limited by the structure, facilities and inventories of the theatres in which they work. We try to do our best with the tools at hand. The “centralized speaker system – with no side speakers” is a given at TATC. It’s been in existence since the building was built….so in a sense the system is an architectural given. I have used it now on six productions at TATC. I appreciate the retraction of the inaccurate information, and thought I would simply put in my two cents….

    Barry Funderburg
    Sound Designer
    Jesus Christ Superstar

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