Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Jesus Christ Superstar
Loosely based on the final days of Jesus of Nazareth, with minimal dialogue, the sung-through show follows the Gospels' accounts of the last week in Jesus' life. The musical swiftly covers many well-known events in Christ's life, from his entry into Jerusalem to Mary Magdalene's and the apostles' devotion to him, the last supper, Jesus' betrayal by Judas, his trial by Pontius Pilate and ultimately his crucifixion.
With impressive music by Lloyd Webber and lyrics from Rice that are personal, probing and succinct, yet never once become sacrilegious and are often quite moving, it's easy to see how a film, multiple London and Broadway revivals, tours and community theatre productions have followed since the musical first debuted more than 50 years ago.
Since this is a rock musical, any truly successful production will only succeed if the cast and band are able to proficiently deliver the requirements of the rock score, with the screaming, pain felt wails, high-pitched riffs, and guitar licks and brassy notes that any fan of the score is well familiar with. Here, under Timothy Sheader's inspired direction, a cast that seamlessly moves throughout the rock score, and an on-stage band that deliver in spades, this production soars and rocks out.
As Jesus, Jack Hopewell is appropriately expressive in a performance where introspective reflection and compassion are always present while lingering moments of confusion and confliction also appear. Once Jesus knows of his fate, Hopewell projects the uncertainty about the actions he made to get to that point, as well as the ultimate coming to terms with his destiny. His soaring performance of "Gethsemane" (as he accompanies himself on guitar), one of the best I've seen, and the moments leading up to the crucifixion resonate with emotion.
Elvie Ellis does a great job showing the conflicted feelings and doubts that Judas has in his devotion to Jesus, and these struggles are portrayed passionately. Ellis has a strong and powerful singing voice; however, some of his enunciation of the lyrics could be clearer. Faith Jones portrays Mary Magdalene with a refined stillness, passion, love, and warmth and her delivery of, arguably, the best known song from the show, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," is appropriately earthy but also questioning and conflicted.
In supporting parts, Nicholas Hambruch, who is from Phoenix and has done wonderful work in numerous shows in town, is imposing as Pontius Pilate, a man who is uncertain of exactly what to do with this so-called king; his delivery of "Pilate's Dream" is clear and strong. Isaac Ryckeghem and Kodiak Thompson are excellent as Caiaphas and Annas, with powerful and rich singing voices, and Erich W. Schleck does good work as Herod in a performance that doesn't overplay or camp up the part like others I've seen have done. Colin Robertson and Brett Hennessey Jones are good as Peter and Simon, and the entire ensemble are animated and lively in delivering the almost non-stop, vibrant, and explosive choreography by Drew McOnie.
The creative elements are excellent. Tom Scutt's earth-tone costumes are a rare combination of both being somewhat period and also timeless, and the two-tier, steel set, which was modeled on a design by Scutt and includes a large raised platform in the shape of a cross, works well to depict the many scenes in the show. The exceptional lighting design by Lee Curran uses shadows and moving lights that, combined with the clear and concise direction by Sheader, create many memorable stage images. Keith Caggiano's sound design delivers fairly clear notes from the cast and a superb sound from the excellent five-piece band. Because this is a rock musical, it's also nice to see how mic stands, mic chords, and other musical instrument elements and accessories are used in various ways; a mic stand is used as a tool in a power struggle between Mary and Judas and as staffs for Caiaphas and Annas and the other Priests, and a large speaker stand is turned upside down to become the crucifix.
With the driving power of Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock music and Tim Rice's lyrics, with virtually no dialogue, Jesus Christ Superstar is a show that relies on a strong cast and band to tell the story of Christ. The current national tour of the musical not only delivers on that requirement but also manages, with Timothy Sheader's honest and powerful direction and Drew McOnie's passionate choreography, to dust off any cobwebs from this over 50-year-old musical and bring it soaring into this century.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs through February 5, 2023, at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest, Tempe AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.asugammage.com or by call 480-965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit ustour.jesuschristsuperstar.com
Director: Timothy Sheader