Omaha Community Playhouse resurrected the 1971 Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar" last night. The musical, based on the last week in the life of Jesus, is told from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. The original Broadway production created a buzz with a nod to contemporary issues from the hippie subculture of the 60's and 70's.
Director Kimberly Faith Hickman chose to incorporate social and political issues of 2015 with picket sign slogans such as, "My body, My choice" and "No H8" carried by the backpack-wearing ensemble as they file down the aisles. They sit on plastic red milk cartons alongside popup tents looking at their laptops. Government officials dressed in dark business suits meet around a boardroom table to discuss solutions to public unrest triggered by a radical Jesus.
Roderick Cotton (Judas) and John Gajewski (Jesus) bravely tackle what are possibly the two most vocally challenging roles in the musical theater world. The notes are in the stratosphere. Their beautiful voices are heavenly most of the time, but there are a few issues with transitioning from the high falsetto to full voice and back again. "Gethsemane" is especially moving.
Sweet-voiced Roni Shelley Perez (Mary Magdalene) gets everything all right in "I Don't Know How to Love Him," and the lovely trio "Could We Start Again, Please?" with Joey Galda (Simon) and Jimmy Nguyen (Peter). Cork Ramer (Caiphas) captivates with his rumbling low register. Zach Kloppenborg (Annas) adds a harmonious tenor. Michael Markey presents a worthy Pontius Pilate with his natural performance style and pleasing voice. The blend of excellent male voices during "This Jesus Must Die" must be one of my favorite parts of the show.
As with any show, there are those who stand out from the others. Jason DeLong shows why he deserves to be dance captain with his fluid moves and distinctive presence. Jerry Van Horn (King Herod) once again steals the show with his stellar performance. His voice is strong, melodious, and sure. His sense of comedy is spot on. He gets the laughs. He is a pro. Period.
Costume designer Lydia Dawson makes some atypical costuming choices. Rather than flowing white garments, the angels look like Earth Angels that have rolled in dirt. That being said, these dresses are lovely as the dancers swirl about. A reporter wears a blinding white trench coat that competes with Jesus' white shirt. (Perhaps that is intentional as a comment on the media.) The ensemble is dressed casually with backpacks that conjure up images of college students, but could they be carrying around life's burdens on their backs? There is much to think about.
Jim Othuse, scenic and lighting designer, continues his brilliance in creating mood. Tall steel structures give a soulless city feel and become the backdrop for the moving cross. Chain link fencing cuts off the city from the backpackers who are camping on the outskirts. As it is a fairly sparse set, Othuse's effective use of lights and changing background sky brings life to the stage. Particularly stunning is the crucifixion scene with its multitude of lights and golden hues.
Music director Jim Boggess and his orchestra keep up the pace of this fast-paced score. The music is memorable and evocative- from sweet and longing to angry and overpowering.
The timing for JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR during Lent couldn't be more appropriate. That alone is reason for seeing this production. Don't let me tell you what is happening: see for yourself what the buzz is all about. The show runs from March 6 through April 4.
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