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Theater review: 44-year-old 'Jesus Christ Superstar' still awfully relevant

It’s a striking juxtaposition: the 1970 music and lyrics of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber paired with the technology and protest mode of contemporary America.

“Jesus Christ Superstar,” which opened Friday at the Omaha Community Playhouse for a five-weekend run, pulses with surprising relevance nearly 44 years after it opened on Broadway. Guest director Kimberly Faith Hickman’s decision to set the rock opera about the last week in Jesus’ life in the present feels like a smart fit.

A Thursday preview audience cheered some strong vocals and music director Jim Boggess’ 10-piece band, rocking out on a score that more than a few patrons had committed to memory back in their college days. Some were heard singing along.

But the sight of Judas consulting his smartphone, the disciples hunched over laptops and Jesus groupies snapping selfies with the man resonated with younger viewers, as did a graffiti painter tagging #JC on a fence. Red Solo cups at the Last Supper fit right in.

It’s a striking juxtaposition: the 1970 music and lyrics of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber paired with the technology and protest mode of contemporary America.

“Superstar” focuses on two psychologically intriguing aspects of Jesus’ story: the complex relationship between Him and Judas, who is torn over his decision of betrayal, and Jesus’ agony over God’s plan and the cost of carrying it out. Belatedly, He finds Himself asking why.

As Judas, Roderick Cotton got things off to a strong start with great singing in the opening “Heaven on Their Minds.” His interpretation combines strong stage presence, focused commitment to the emotion behind the lyrics and impressive singing.

John Gajewski brings the same kind of emotional commitment to the part of Jesus, ranging from calm and clear-eyed moments with Mary Magdalene and His disciples to wrath at temple money-changers and anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. The vocal range stretches from natural baritone to high falsetto, and he handled both well at Thursday’s preview.

The scourging scene, with no singing at all, and the crucifixion were powerfully staged and acted.

Memorable in supporting roles: Cork Ramer, who brings a booming deep bass to the political scheming of Caiphas; Michael Markey as Pilate, who gets cornered into condemning Jesus against his will; and Roni Shelley Perez as a very young-looking Mary Magdalene. The crowd clearly enjoyed her rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Slight pitch problems might be written off to opening nerves.

Personal favorites: a dapper Jerry Van Horn, who delivers some of the night’s best singing in Herod’s taunting “Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool”; and Joey Galda as Simon, in exceptional voice as he assures Jesus “you’ll get the power.”

Drawbacks? The emotion of the moment occasionally pushed some vocals uncomfortably close to screeching mode — that gets old fast — and I was struck by how much of the score feels like repetitive vamping. A notably young cast helps energize it, though. The show’s ending, sans resurrection, always feels abrupt to me.

Lydia Dawson’s costumes subtly recall the protest-era 1970s while also bowing to today. Scenic and lighting designer Jim Othuse brings mood-shifting color to a cloudy backdrop and nine tall steel-frame towers. Hickman’s choreography is most striking in the “Superstar” scene leading up to the crucifixion.

The show runs about an hour and 50 minutes, including intermission.

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