A TV monitor is tuned to “JNN” where an anchorperson announces news of possible terrorists on the loose, the detention of political leaders, etc. Onstage, a violinist and electric guitarist play the easily recognizable opening notes of a classic rock opera and are joined by men and women of various ages, races, and sexual orientations, one of whom carries a sign which reads “Troops Out Now.”  This is clearly a Jesus Christ Superstar for the 21st century.

Derek Charles Livingston writes in his director’s note that “my government approves of spying on its citizens, uses questionable witnesses and evidence to detain people, offers too many accused unfair trials, labels dissenters and critics as unpatriotic and terrorists (or at least terrorist sympathizers); and my government not only tortures the unindicted, it defends the practice.” The parallels between today’s world and the world in which Jesus Christ preached his words of peace and justice are inescapable, and Livingston’s production for the Attic Theatre Ensemble is appropriately contemporary.

This is the first time I have seen Jesus Christ Superstar. I must confess that I’m not a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music for the piece or of Tim Rice’s lyrics, which affects my emotional reaction to JCSS, especially in the wake of the power that is the similarly themed Corpus Christi. Though Jesus Christ Superstar itself will never top a list of my favorite shows, the Attic’s production has been put together with talent and imagination.

In the (super)starring role, handsome Scott Charles looks like someone you might see any day on Venice Beach and acts and sings this difficult role with power and charisma and an amazing high wail of a voice.  Charles excels particularly in “Gethsemane,” singing out a heartbreaking “Why should I die?” as three disciples sleep behind him, and, not surprisingly, in “Crucifixion.”

As Judas, Blanche Ramirez demonstrates a rock soprano capable of standing up the huge demands of the role. Her “How did you let things get so out of hand” to Jesus in “The Last Supper” is a standout as is her reprise of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” which precedes Judas’ suicide by hanging.  This is fine work, intense and emotional. 

Jennifer Blake is a lovely Mary Magdalene, and gets to perform arguably the show’s most famous song “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.”  Pamela Taylor is particularly good as Pontius Pilate, singing and acting the part with great force. Talented Steve Owsley is a Texas two-stepping King Herod, dressed in military khaki and cowboy hat, and pirouetting for each of the 40 lashes administered to Christ.

As in most 99-seat musicals with large casts, not all the performers are quite up to the vocal demands of the score, but they are a talented and committed ensemble: Ali Deyer, Rochelle Firestone, Jayne Han, Matthew Herrmann, Lara Crystin Hughes, Dawn Medina, John Szura, Chris Turner, and Dane Whitlock.  Eric Jorgenson, recently in the Attic’s Say You Love Satan, shows an unexpected talent here as the onstage violinist/apostle.

Director Livingston has created some powerful images onstage. Actors in furs and spangles sell their wares and defile the temple until Jesus arrives with a cry of “Sinners!” Jesus heals the infirm, all of them dressed in black and reaching out to him like rabid fans. The disciples sport a dozen different styles of sunglasses for The Last Supper. The crowd screams out “Crucify him!” with fingers pointed menacingly at Christ.

Richard Berent does fine work as musical director as do the offstage band, and it is refreshing to hear unamplified voices in the Attic’s small space.  Livingston’s set design is simple, using several moving panels for scene changes. Brandon Baruch’s lighting is particularly effective at setting the mood for each scene.

Though it comes a bit too late for the Easter season, Lloyd Webber fans will welcome the chance to see one of his earliest and still most famous works.

Attic Theatre & Film Center, 5429 W. Washington Blvd.,Los Angeles

–Steven Stanley

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