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Jesus Christ Superstar
Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
April 26, 2018

Omega Jones (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Jesus Christ Superstar is s show that’s been staged in various different ways over the years.  There are the more straightforward Biblical-style stagings, and there have been some re-imaginings, which seem increasingly popular in recent times. In their latest production, Stray Dog Theatre has gone the “re-imagining” route, resulting in an entertaining, well-cast production that can be somewhat confusing in its theming.

Telling the story of Jesus Christ (Omega Jones) mostly from the point of view of the disciple who betrayed him, Judas Iscariot (Phil Leveling), this rock opera has had its controversies over the years, but while it’s over 40 years old now, the music has held up well over that time. Here, though, the story isn’t told in the traditional Biblical setting. Here, director Justin Been has updated the show to give it something of a futuristic, sci-fi type setting that isn’t entirely consistent. Still, the music is all here, performed extremely well by the excellent Stray Dog band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit. In this production, Jesus and his disciples are presented as some kind of enigmatic rebels to a futuristic regime that has suggestions of various Evil Empires from a variety of science fiction stories, especially Star Wars and Star Trek in terms of costuming.  The drama is in the performances and music, with well-known songs such as the title number, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and the show-stopping “Gesthsemane” represented extremely well, although sometimes the power of the story seems a little muted due to the theming.

There’s a great cast here, especially in terms of voices. Jones has a remarkably versatile vocal range and charismatic presence as Jesus, and Leveling sings better than I’ve ever heard him as a particularly cynical version of Judas. There are also strong performances from Heather Matthews as an enthralled Mary Magdalene, Gerry Love hamming it up with gusto as King Herod, and Lavonne Byers as a conflicted, reflective Pontius Pilate, with the songs particularly suiting her lower vocal range. Riley Dunn as Simon Zealotes, and Kevin Corpuz as Peter also have standout vocal moments, and the main players are backed by a strong, energetic ensemble, who are in excellent voice and also move well as expertly choreographed by Mike Hodges, who also puts in a memorable, oily turn as Annas as a complement to Jon Hey’s deep-voiced, menacing Caiaphas.

Visually, the show is striking and otherwordly. Josh Smith’s set is vividly realized, with an imposing, marble-like staircase as the most prominent feature, surmounted by a pair of ominous doors. The various levels of the set also lend well to the theatricality of the production, with ladders, platforms and various areas of the stage used to great effect. The costumes by Eileen Engel are meticulously crafted but not entirely cohesive in terms of making it seem like all the characters are inhabiting the same world. Still, the show is visually memorable, with exellent lighting by Tyler Duenow adding to the overall effect.

This is definitely an entertaining production. It’s unquestionably Jesus Christ Superstar in terms of the performances and music, but theming-wise, this production doesn’t always seem to know what it wants to be. Still, the cast is wonderful, and the music is driving, powerful and memorable. Overall, I would say this was a worthwhile and truly memorable theatrical experience.

Phil Leveling, Heather Matthews, Omega Jones, Jon Hey, Mike Hodges and ensemble
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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