Sometimes a production is so perfect in every aspect it’s hard to explain how beautiful and powerful it is without sounding overly passionate.
“Jesus Christ, Superstar” is one such opera and Tacoma Little Theatre’s production is undoubtedly one of the finest the theatre has mounted in its almost 100 years.
Being fair to the other works at TLT, they didn’t have the stirring music of Andrew Lloyd Webber nor the impelling lyrics of Tim Rice.
Almost like a fifth Gospel, of Judas, this brilliant rock opera tells the story of Jesus’ last few days of life on earth through the eyes of the fallen Apostle. Written in the 1970’s, Webber and Rice put the biblical figures in the pair’s era of Flower Children.
Blake R. York creates one of his best sets to date. A seemingly austere, gigantic cross dominates center stage slanting from a short distance from the upstage wall down three steps with its foot ending almost at the apron; the arms extend across one-third area of the stage. This is surrounded on three sides, at the curtain line, by what looks similar to a huge screen room divider of the ‘70’s; a wrought iron type of structure with what appears to be huge jagged shards of smoked glass set between the rails. The blocking takes place around and on the cross which becomes a runway for the action. The cast walks and dances around it and down it; they sit or lay in different areas, which creates various locations of the action.
Suddenly and surprisingly, bursting from the upstage ceiling, a metal fire “escape” ladder drops sequestering Pilate form the hoi polloi and slightly obscuring mystical dramatic happenings from the audience.
This dynamic set is enhanced and takes on a life of its own and morphs into a living structure with the magnificent lighting design by Niclas Olson with countless red and white LED strobe lights bursting on and off to accentuate various dramatic events.
Resident Costume Designer Michele Graves sees that all cast members are clothed in mixtures of the style of the times – bell-bottom pants, spaghetti sandals, peasant blouses and the like. Jeffery Weaver compiles the props needed to dress the set.
Just a note about the unsung crew members who help make this production such a success; Scenic Artist Ana Bury and Sound Board operator Mary Grace Dela Rosa and especially Follow Spot Operators Nathaniel Walker and Kyle Yoder who always keep the lights on the right people at the right time.
Jill Heinecke, who also appears on stage, is Dance Captain and Stage Manager; the latter task she shares with Courtney Seyl.
Leischen Moore is Musical Director. Moore has her cast right on cue and in tune with the prerecorded music provided by Aztec Show Trax. This is a hard task for any musical director or actor as there is no “catch up” if an error is made; there are none. Everything goes off perfectly. Moore brings out the strength and beauty of her cast’s voices.
Lexi Barnett brilliantly directs and choreographs this heart-pounding piece of theatre. Not only are the leads aptly cast, but each ensemble member maintains perfect timing and actions, whether singing, dancing or both. Their timing is impeccable.
With a cast of 23, it is amazing how Barnett moves them about the stage keeping them in the right spots at the right time without bumping into each other in the sometime frantic dance numbers. Her style of chorography is dynamic. Barnett mixes explosive moments of contortion-like dance moves with gentle, soothing ones to allow the audience to catch their breath; the cast unbelievably doesn’t seem to need the respite.
Barnett brings out Webber and Rice’s possible reason for Judas’ betrayal in a couple of scenes which she silently builds to the climatic scene of accepting the blooded silver. First, Judas thinks Jesus is going too fast and changing His ideas, allowing His followers to call Jesus “King,” which could cause trouble with the Romans. Secondly, Jesus doesn’t seem to be as close to His old friend as He has been. Thirdly, Jesus is spending more time with Mary rather than Judas. All adds up to fear for his pastor’s and his own life and jealously of losing the love of the man he so fervently loves. As Oscar Wilde writes in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, “Man kills the thing he loves the most.”
Thanks to Barnett for the hard work in understanding the script and building such a great production.
As to the cast, as stated, they are nothing short of professional caliber in talent and execution.
Nine Ensemble members are named Apostles only. They are Jaden Downing, Carl Frank, Jill Heinecke, Sydney Lenoch, Mary F. Thornton, Barrett Vandiver, Madison Watkins, Randon Welch and Julia Wyman. They all hit their marks, make rhythmical moves, show comfort and love to Jesus as directed and, thus, fill in the empty spaces and move the story along with meaning and luster. Three others Apostles double in brass as Soul Girls – these are the back-up singers for Herod and Judas. In those roles, Caiti Burke, Melanie Gladstone and Shauntal Pyper shine like a top trio of 1920’s nightclub chorus girls who flit about the stage with cutesy flapper-like moves aiding much needed comic relief to the production. All appear on stage for the Ensemble’s opening number asking, “What’s the Buzz,” mesmerizing the audience like a constant swarm of bees.
The four Priests, who condemn Jesus, appear in black business suits, which acknowledge their authority, setting themselves off from the fun-loving followers of the profit. Two also play His guards, they are James Klarich and George McClure; add Karen Christensen as Annas, who agrees with the head priest, Caiaphas, played by Aleks Merilo, who proclaims in his rich bass voice that “This Jesus Must Die.”
Rico Lastrapes is Simon, the Zealot, who encourages Jesus to confront the Romans to prove His right to His kingdom. Lastrapes is fervent in his role of offering to lead their people into the fray.
DuWayne Andrews, Jr. is Pontius Pilate. Andrews is dutifully officious as the Roman governor of Jerusalem. Andrews plays Pilate as a hesitant leader of men who is called upon by the populous to crucifying Jesus when Pilate can find no wrong with the man. Fearful of repercussions, Pilate gives in to the masses desires in a majestic baritone/tenor voice and sends to weary prisoner to the King of Judea for trial.
Andrew Fry is King Herod, resplendent in a surfing outfit, surrounded by the aforementioned Soul Girls. Fry is absolutely hilarious as the funky Herod when he sings “King Herod’s Song,” blurting out, “You are the Christ, the Great Jesus Christ. Prove to me you are divine; change my water into wine…” Who could sit still when they hear Fry bopping out those lyrics in his jazzy voice?
Allie Milburn is the loving and lovely reformed wanton Mary Magdalene. Milburn openly shows her character’s love for Jesus. The soprano is rightfully perplexed when she tells the audience in her beautiful, well modulated voice, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”
Christopher Sweet is Peter, whom Jesus calls his “Rock.” Sweet is a very good actor; his singing voice is wonderful; but his dancing is outstanding. His body is kindred to liquid mercury – quicksilver. Sweet glides across the stage with intrepid ease. He has the fluidity of a beautiful, flower-laden, winding brook, which vacillates between tumbling over disruptive rocks and sluicing over clear silt. It is hard for the audience to take their eyes off the man.
Bruce Haasl is Jesus. Haasl has the look of the Great Masters’ interpretation of His appearance; the silver-throated singer has the soothing voice of one whom people choose to follow and Haasl gives his role the smugness of a self-made man with a stout following while still questioning His plan to win His rightful throne. Haasl makes Jesus’ fear of reprisals of His teachings fearless. The actor has captured the essence of the character with understanding.
Loucas T. Curry is Judas. Curry’s dynamically demanding voice leads the audience into the world of Jesus with Judas’ fears for his savior’s life. Curry does an excellent job of trying to convince Jesus to curtail his preaching in order to save Judas’ life and that of his beloved friend. Curry’s voice is uplifting and inspiring as is his acting. Curry’s performance is not to be missed.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” continues at Tacoma Little Theatre at 210 North I Street through April 1 at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with 2 p.m. matinees Sundays and a special Pay-What-You-Can performance Thursday March 22 at 7:30 p.m.
For more information or to make reservations call the theatre at (253) 272-2281 or go online to www.tacomalittletheatre.com.
There is so much good theatre in the Puget Sound area now; it is good to know that much of it is located in community theatre – with amateurs. It is so rewarding for a member of the stage, front or back, to see their finished product come to life to the joy of their companies and audiences.
Don’t miss the beauty of the awesome production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Tacoma Little Theatre. You may never have a chance to see a better performance of such a complete product of those who give their talents for the love of doing so.