Theatre Charlotte started its run of Jesus Christ Superstar on Friday, May 15. Housed in the Eloise MacDonald Playhouse, a lovely old theater house in the middle of Charlotte's posh old neighborhood Myers Park, Theatre Charlotte presents large-scale productions in an intimate setting. Giving the gift of theatre to Charlotte since the 40's, Theatre Charlotte is a seasoned presenter.
Andrew Lloyd Webber conceptualized this work as a rock-opera album in 1970. A year later, it hit the stage on Broadway. Loosely based on the last week of the life of Jesus Christ, the concept of the musical is flexible enough to have validity in any time period. He is a man who supports non-violence in a violent society. His followers idolize him, but do not understand his message, and the leading faction feels threatened. The heaviness of the message is made light through some funny songs and through the continuity and commentary of Judah, the storyteller of the musical.
Theatre Charlotte's portrayal of Jesus Christ Superstar did not stray too far from the norm. The costuming represented the different scenes well. Jesus and his followers wore loose garments. The priests looked priestly. Herod and his pack dressed like an 80's beach disco dance club gone wrong. Costume designer Josh Webb utilized the small stage extremely well. Arched stairs rose from each side of the stage and met on a raised platform under which the band's six members sat. Actors entered and exited through the front and sides of the stage, the top platform at the top of the stairs, and from a spot under the platform. So much access to the stage offered many points of interest as the audience didn't know from what direction the actors would be coming.
Director Billy Ensley added a unique touch that made the production seem larger. At various points in the play, different actors held a handheld camera projecting a close up image onto a screen on stage offering a different angle of action. This touch enhanced the Jesus-as-celebrity commentary of the musical. It also turned the audience in voyeurs at some of Jesus’ most private and challenging moments. Most of the time this technology worked well. As the actors get more chances to use it, they will fix the occasional problem of focusing the camera on the face, not the hairline, which happened a few times opening night.
Though mostly amateur voices, the actors handled the singing quite well. The three main characters, Chris Chandler (Judas), Joe McCourt (Jesus), and Tracie Frank (Mary Magdalene), all held their own. Chandler acted the tortured quality of his role well, but I had a hard time understanding him as his diction would benefit from a little more work with pronunciation. McCourt was a convincing Jesus with his long hair and peaceful presence. His voice was pleasant and mostly captured the power of the famous song "Gethsemane." I sometimes couldn't hear Chandler or McCourt and think that their vocal mics should be more balanced. I appreciated Frank's interpretation of her songs. Her facile voice easily added colorful melismas to Webber's otherwise straightforward melodies.
Some of the vocal standouts to the show were William Kirkwood (Caiaphas), J. Michael Beech (Pontius Pilate), and Steve Bryan (Herod). Kirkwood's deep bass thundered out over the audience. While some of his low notes sounded like they were right at the edge of his vocal limit, the majority of his singing was buttery and clear. Beech's voice was so musical and pristine that I wished he had a larger role in this musical. His obvious vocal command added depth and humanity to his role of the spineless king. The role of Herod is a fun and a comedic break in this heavy musical. Bryan owned the effeminate king with his vaudeville song and had the audience laughing with delight at his dancing and vocal gesturing.
One role that deserves a mention is Nick Culp as Peter. The relatively small role didn't have a solo until the second act, but Culp wowed with his vocal and acting talent. His is a voice to follow, and I hope to hear and see more of him around town.
The ensemble and band were in top form. The band literally never missed a beat, and the versatility of the acting and singing of the ensemble was the glue to Theatre Charlotte's production. If I hadn't known Friday was opening night, I would have thought that this show had been in production for weeks, so easy was the flow of the singing and staging. Theatre Charlotte is a treasure to theatre lovers in the area; and seeing the incredibly talented cast and crew. it is no wonder why. The production runs through May 31. You have the option of buying tickets online, in person, or by the phone. Opening night was sold out, and as smoothly as opening night went, the shows will just get better and better. So don’t wait. Buy your tickets as soon as possible. For more details, see the sidebar.