Jesus Christ Superstar, easily the most beloved and recognized rock opera of them all, has endured its share of revisualizations and restagings over the years since its Broadway debut in 1971. From the hippie era of the ’60s to the punk movement of the ’80s, this show has seen it all.
For his new production, now playing at the Playhouse San Antonio, director Rick Sanchez has given his performers and designers free rein to handle the piece with a more timeless approach, mixing various performance styles, costumes, and genres with the understanding that the power of the underlying score would provide a cohesive thread. It’s mostly a success.
Depicting the followers of Jesus as enthusiastic club kids (complete with glowsticks) and the grim cadre of high priests who want him destroyed as black-clad spectres of death, the director’s vision is at its most effective. The set construction by Ryan DeRoos is appropriately dark and dramatic, and Megan Reilly’s media design, projected on a large screen hovering above the stage, begins powerfully enough as we see a fast-moving montage of Christ as depicted by different artists throughout the ages, but later there are far too many shots of gray clouds billowing in slow motion. We only need to see that image once or twice to get it — something terrible is looming on the horizon. There’s also some bizarre puppetry going on when Judas sings “Damned for All Time.”
In terms of performances, Creighton Moench makes for a somewhat bland, blond Jesus. He sounds fine when he’s singing in his register, but he doesn’t have a rock and roll voice. His attempts to reach Ted Neeley’s original G above high C during such numbers as “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” don’t get there. On the other hand, Brian Carmack’s depiction of Judas is a marvel of conflicted emotion. Overcome by love, admiration, and guilt, his choked vocalizations work perfectly for the character.
Elise Pardue is a wonderful Mary Magdalene, and her performances of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Could We Start Again, Please?” are highlights. Also terrific is the commanding Joshua Goldberg as Pontius Pilate, who successfully conveys his character’s conflicted feelings. Robert Quintanilla provides the deep baritone voice required by Caiaphas, the priest who demands Jesus’ blood, and James R. Welch camps it up in full drag as King Herod during his music hall-style number.
Musical director/conductor Jane Haas’s twelve-piece orchestra is solid and helps to move Sanchez’s theatrical experiment into the positive category, and the backing ensemble is marvelous. All in all, this is an intriguing production, filled with more highs than lows, and well worth experiencing, especially for first-timers.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays at 8:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 3:00 p.m. Sunday through March 6 at the Playhouse San Antonio, San Pedro Park at Ashby. Tickets cam be obtained at the Playhouse website or by calling (210) 733-7258.