Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar is a bright, in-your-face kind of musical, satirical and bold, yet also featuring moments of quiet humanity. North Carolina Theatre's production definitely does this juxtaposition well, with a powerhouse cast and excellent design. For those skeptical of the show itself or its subject material, know that it does not attempt to accurately depict the events of the Bible, but rather, it presents a sort of character study of some of history's most prominent figures. The plot roughly follows the events of the Gospels in the last week of Jesus' life – the Last Supper, Judas' betrayal, and the other events that lead up to the closing event, Jesus' Crucifixion. Contrary to the Bible's accounts, many of these events are interpreted through the eyes of Judas Iscariot. Needless to say, the decision to program this show during Holy Week was not an accident, and added an extra dimension to the performance.
The first act is full of snapshot events introducing the characters, showing how Jesus' reputation and fervor are slowly broken down, and the unrest that grows around and within him. Chris Bernier's colosseum-like set, with its columns and movable staircases, was a perfect backdrop to create multiple settings with influential lighting design by Samuel Rushen. Aaron C. Finley's Judas Iscariot was the first to wow audiences with his song "Heaven on Their Minds," in which he narrates the first reasons for his conflict with Jesus. He warns of Jesus' destruction when the Roman Empire learns of his claims to be God, claims that Judas, of course, thinks are false. Brennyn Lark's Mary Magdalene was introduced as the soothing antithesis to Jesus' dissatisfaction and inner turmoil with "Everything's Alright." Between this song and the classic "I Don’t Know How to Love Him," I found myself wishing that Mary had been given more musical material in the show's first act because Lark's musical styling and ad libs for these songs were wonderful. The very nature of Aleks Pevec's voice, with an insanely powerful belt and also a tender falsetto, displayed the two sides of Jesus's character, his zeal and passion contrasted by moments of quiet sorrow.
The second act is where things get real, so to speak. A series of tragic events is broken up in this act by moments of humor: it begins with a light tableau of the famous "Last Supper" painting before continuing with Jesus' heart-wrenching pleas and powerful defiance to God in the Garden of Gethsemane. Caiaphas (Larry Alan Coke) and Annas (Rob Morrison) continue to be the absolute foils of one another, quite humorously – the casting of these two was perfect. As Jesus travels through the ranks of Roman authorities, each one is more outrageous than the last, ending up with the ridiculousness that is "King Herod's Song." Joshua Morgan was excellent in this spotlight as a pompous, raunchy king, suspending the audience's disbelief in the middle of Jesus' tragedy.
With the heartbreaking moment of Judas' death, the music grows more and more dissonant, and the crowd that had once adored Jesus screams for his crucifixion in "Trial Before Pilate." The ensemble's ability to make this contrast come alive was excellent and compelling. In the middle of this, Judas reappears dressed in a classic 70s white suit to sing the title song, "Superstar," which is so flashy and over-the-top you almost forget that he's nearly mocking Jesus with the song. The choreography throughout the show supported the story without being too obtrusive, but in this number, dance captain Stephen Hernandez's work shone.
The lighting and set stylings for the Crucifixion were ingenious – Jesus rose up on the cross that had been embedded into the floor, while a starry curtain was brought down behind him. The clever sound design was apparent here, too. The production actually begins and ends with the cast in 21st century clothes – at the opening, designer LeGrande Smith's colorful costumes are displayed on stage, waiting for the actors to come out and put them on. For the final number, the full cast reappears in their regular clothes, even Jesus, and stand silently inward in a circle. This interesting costuming choice added relevancy to the somber and reverent ending of an excellent show. Don't miss out on the last few opportunities to see NCT's Jesus Christ Superstar.
Short bios of the actors are available on North Carolina Theatre's website. Jesus Christ Superstar continues through Sunday, April 16. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.