Theater goes on biblical excursion with Jesus Christ Superstar
By Charles J. Morgan
There are two ways that “Jesus Christ Superstar,” currently in production at the CMPAC, may be the subject of a critique: the theatrical and the biblical. The work of Tim Rice (lyrics) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (music), who gave the theatrical world “Evita” and “Phantom of the Opera,” it is a rock opera with no recitatives — all song and some ancillary choreography.
Brilliantly arranged live music, actually in the pit, featured Matthew W. Surico directing and on keyboard, backed by Danny Passadino on second board, Diana Fuller and Laura Carroll on guitars, Rob Curry on bass, Jacob Krug on percussion, John Dumlao on violin with Jared Shaw on drums, Kevin Merkel on horn and the skilled fingers and embouchure of Gary Golden on trumpet. This crew had it all, superbly rehearsed, musically overwhelming; Surico had culled top talent.
Director Danny Amy had the leading role of Jesus of Nazareth. Tall and imposing with a lyrical tenor voice, he dominated the enemies and followers with gentility consonant with that of the Nazarene.
Two key roles were held by Jim Sluder as Judas and Debbie Hecht as Mary Magdalene. Sluder brought out the purely earthbound fanaticism. His intense drive to have Jesus proclaim himself as an earthly ruler will lead him to the betrayal. Sluder’s high-pitched intensity had him truly “eating up the scenery.” Hecht’s role was problematic. There is a scholarly trend currently that puts her extremely “close” to Jesus. Her plangent and echoing voice was near rapturous and brought off the humanity of Jesus, which was the essence of Rice and Webber’s efforts.
Four other roles were critical: Annas, played by Ralph D’Ambrose, Caiaphas by John DiGiorgio, Herod by Marc Andre Ausset and Pontius Pilate by Carl Tese. D’Ambrose was the mocking, teasing enemy of Jesus, a part he carried out with detailed efficiency. DiGiorgio, costumed in red with gold-tipped staff revealed a voice that approached a deadly basso at times and brought out his authority with booming, stentorian menace. In contradistinction to the others, Ausset captured the deviant, flighty Herod in a spangled costume and even danced with his female courtiers in a number designed to look like a Moulin Rouge group doing the Galop Infernal. Tese had a near basso voice that he used as an accent to his proclamations. He quite ably evinced the dangers of the middle-of-the-road lack of decision that marks Pontius Pilate’s fatal pronouncement.
In Act I, Hecht’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” was a relief from the raucous song and dance of the tormentors and followers, yet it evinced a deep sincerity and that underlying attraction that perhaps is attributed to the Magdalene without biblical evidence. “Pilate’s Dream” by Tese gave the audience a clear picture of Pilate’s hesitancy and his fear. Annas, Caiaphas, priests and the chorus perform “This Jesus Must Die,” a pounding, roaring declaration that made known the desires of the Sanhedrin more than obvious.
Act II is a passion play. The “Last Supper” made no effort to emulate da Vinci but was neatly executed with “Do This in Memory of Me,” outstripping the meaning of the first Eucharist. Ironically Webber’s artful tendency to use a rock cum Latin beat still paid off here. The confrontation of Christ with Pilate was done well except for the famous “What Is Truth?” which was delivered almost in passing when it deserved more of a showcasing.
Choreography by Jennifer Amy was conservative but effective. Set design by Danny Amy was very impressive. The dust and stones of first-century Jerusalem were done in detail with even an upstage center exit that gave a true three-dimensional air. Intricate lighting was the work of David John Serrecchia. He played it suggestively with head spots on Jesus looking like a halo. The finale was handled by the orchestra in a number entitled “John 19:41.” With Surico’s talent handling this one, it had all the sonority of a typical full-blast finale.
The CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale, will present “Jesus Christ Superstar” through April 26. Tickets range from $20 to $29. For more information, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.