From the first notes of Jim Boggess and his superlative orchestra, you will be catapulted on an amazing journey for the eyes, ears, and heart as you experience the last week of Jesus’ life told in the style of a rock opera.
This is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse. This is, by far, the best musical ever mounted on an Omaha stage and Kimberly Faith Hickman deserves a standing ovation of her own for an extraordinary display of direction and choreography. Never is there a wasted beat, nuance, or moment and you will be riveted to this incredibly powerful story from beginning to end. It has been updated so that the tale now takes place in modern times which I believe strengthens its relevance. Jesus and his followers are now street people living in a derelict shantytown while Pilate and the high priests are well dressed businessmen. Lydia Dawson’s masterful costuming and Jim Othuse’s deceptively simple set perfectly catch the mood of this update.
This is one of those shows where I truly wish I’d be able to single out every performer individually in a review, but for the sake of brevity, let me say that this cast is phenomenal. Each and every one is always in the moment and exudes an incredible amount of energy that helps propel the show to unimaginable heights. Among the talented ensemble were a few standout performances that deserve special notice such as Zach Kloppenborg’s portrayal of the obsequious, irritating suck up Annas. His whining tenor wonderfully grates on your nerves throughout the night. Jimmy Nguyen’s Peter was a surprising delight as his strong, supple singing voice completely belies his slight frame. Jerry Van Horn rules the stage as King Herod as he smarmily tries to get Jesus to prove his divinity in “Herod’s Song”.
Roderick Cotton is a marvel as Jesus’ betrayer, Judas Iscariot. Oddly enough, he is actually the centerpiece of this story as it is told from his point of view. Cotton makes for a surprisingly sympathetic Judas as he is Jesus’ right hand man, but fears things are getting out of control now that people believe that Jesus is the son of God (Heaven on Their Minds) while he is convinced Jesus is just a wise teacher. Cotton’s powerful tenor is capable of capturing a wide range of emotion from sneering superiority as he blasts Mary Magdalene for anointing Jesus with expensive ointment in “Everything’s Alright” to desperation as he feels compelled to betray Jesus for his own good in “Damned for All Time/Blood Money” to anger as he confronts Jesus at “The Last Supper”.
Cotton is also a treat to watch in his silent moments as his expressions are crystal clear and tell a story all of their own. Not only is it a striking performance, I believe it has the potential to be an award winning one at the end of the season.
John Gajewski handles the role of Jesus with grace and aplomb. His dynamite tenor reaches searing and soaring falsettos that would make Ted Neeley proud. Gajewski’s Jesus really emphasizes his human nature and reminds us that Jesus felt the same emotions as every other person. Rarely have I heard such subtle, outstanding nuance in a voice as Gajewski glides from tender love and hope for his followers to understand the truth of his mission in “Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem”, to supreme confidence in his message in “Hosanna”, to fury at the desecration of his Father’s house in “The Temple”, to frustration with his followers not getting it in “The Last Supper”, and caps it off with a haunting acceptance of his death in “Gethsemane”.
Gajewski’s expressions and body language are just as subtle. Particularly telling were the weariness in his face when he accepts his destiny in “Gethsemane” and his pained suffering as he is scourged in “Trial by Pilate”. Both moments had me searching for a tissue.
Many experienced performers would be envious of the stage presence and confidence possessed by young Roni Shelley Perez who plays Mary Magdalene. Her sweet soprano captures utter devotion to Jesus as she comforts him in “Everything’s Alright”, a perplexed confusion in her dominating solo “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, and a slow understanding of the truth of Jesus in “Could We Start Again, Please?” Her performance was one of the night’s many highlights.
Also spectacular were Cork Ramer as the high priest, Caiphas, and Michael Markey as Pontius Pilate. Ramer’s flawless bass exudes a dark menace as he plots to eliminate Jesus in “Jesus Must Die” and a mocking congratulations and thank you to Judas in “Judas’ Death”. Markey’s facile baritone paints a picture of a man reluctant to execute the innocent Jesus, but who finally buckles under the extreme pressure in “Trial by Pilate”.
A few minor missteps in diction, projection, and dancing did not distract from this entrancing, beautiful, and moving night of theatre. As Saturday’s sellout crowd indicates, this show is already morphing into a massive success. Get a ticket before it’s too late to see this epic hit and potential awards season darling.