As one of the few musical theater buffs who’d never seen a big stage production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, I didn’t know quite what I’d be in for at Civic Light Opera Of South Bay Cities’ big-cast, big-scale revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber rock classic, though given CLOSBC’s great track record and the sensational lineup of talent in the JCS cast, I knew I’d be in for something special.

Right I was. Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Stephanie A. Coltrin, is all-around stunning.  Though its music and lyrics (by Webber and Tim Rice) have never had a particularly strong emotional impact on me, Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center’s Jesus Christ Superstar impresses in every other way imaginable.

This is a production whose spectacular look matches its thrilling performances.  Christopher Beyries striking set is lit by Darrell J. Clark’s Vegas-ready lighting with its “Technicolor meets pastels meets blood red and gold flambé” effects. Christa Armendariz’s costumes feature an awesome variety of looks, from 60s hippie-wear to military chic to S&M leather. Add to this John Feinstein’s rock concert-ready sound design and you’ve got one dazzling-looking and sounding production.

A terrific opening scene sets the stage for what’s to come, a Roman Empire where sex and violence contrast with the joy, purity, and brotherhood of Jesus (Eric Kunze) and his disciples, and the exquisite simplicity of “Everything’s All Right,” sung by Mary Magdalene (Karole Foreman) as she anoints Jesus’ head with oil. (This, and Foreman’s later “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” reveal the singer’s rich, powerful voice.)

A frightening Caiaphas (Jody Ashworth) and his priests (including Robert Sean Thompson as Annas) look like something out of a very dark and secret ceremony as they gaze down on Jesus and his followers.  Ashworth—Hulk Hogan with a powerful basso profundo of a voice—makes “This Jesus Must Die” threatening indeed.

Kevin Bailey follows his Showman Extraordinaire role as The Engineer in Miss Saigon with another electric, scene-stealing turn as a strutting, egotistical Pilate, whom Armendariz has costumed as a cross between Sergeant Pepper and Michael Jackson circa Thriller.  Bailey’s got his rock-star voice going, and hitting stratospheric heights, as does Kunze’s Jesus, reaching notes only dogs can hear.

Broadway’s Kunze shows off his sensitive side in an exquisitely sung and powerfully acted “Gethsemane, laying bare Jesus’ suffering, regret, sorrow, fear, and anger.

The same dark, hooded figures whom Jesus had previously cured (another great set of Armendariz costumes, recalling the Queen-turned-crone in Disney’s Snow White), now turn on him, as Jesus is arrested and taken before Herod, but a Herod unlike any you might have imagined in vacation Bible school.

Armendariz dresses (or rather undresses) Harrison White and his octet of skimpily-clad courtiers in black leather, fishnets, boots, and whips for a deliciously campy-sexy-shocking “King Herod’s Song,” a showcase for the sassy, scene-stealing White and eight of the hottest (and hottest-dancing) boys and girls you’re likely ever to see on a musical theater stage, executing Mark Oka’s choreography like something out of Chicago or The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

As Judas, a muscular, shaved-headed Josh Tower brings to powerful life a man obsessed with Jesus, quite possibly with repressed longings, and this is never more evident than in his gut-wrenching breakdown, and reprise of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” retitled “Judas’ Death.”

Following a hard-to-watch scene of Pilate (Bailey) savagely administering thirty-nine lashes of the whip to Jesus’ naked back, intensified by Feinstein’s sound design, Tower returns from the dead dressed like Dreamgirls’ James “Thunder” Early, and appropriately backed by the glamorously-gowned “Soul Girls” (a sizzling Janelle Doté, Kasi Jones, and Nicole Tillman) to belt out the show’s title song.

Jesus’ ascension into heaven makes for arguably the production’s most visually stunning moment, and an apt climax to the evening, with Kunze floating up from a metal cross almost to the upper edge of the proscenium in front of an absolutely breathtaking diamond-star-studded black sky.

The term “rock opera” has never been more appropriate for a musical than it is for Jesus Christ Superstar, with Webber’s rock concert-ready music quite unlike his later scores for Phantom and Sunset Boulevard, particularly as performed by music director/conductor Alby Potts and CLOSBC’s flawless sixteen-piece orchestra.

Also featured in the starring cast is are the always excellent Ron Kellum and Jason Webb as Peter and Simon, with Dave Barrus (John), Dane Biren (Thomas), Jason Deroest (Andrew), Juan Guillen (Matthew), Raymond Joe Matsamura (Bartholemew), Mike A. Motroni (Thaddeus), Kelby Thwaits (James), and Michael J. Willett (Philip) rounding out the disciples.  The huge ensemble also includes Jennifer Brasuell, Leland Burnett (Priest), Callie Carson, Jasmine Ejan, Jessica Gisin, Melissa Rose Legaspi, Jeremiah Lowder (Priest), Melissa Mitchell, Tommy Stefanek (Roman Guard), and dance captain Karl Warden (Roman Guard).  Those ensemble members featured in choreographer Oka’s eclectic dance numbers are some of the finest triple-threats in town.

With Jesus Christ Superstar, director Coltrin proves herself (as she did in last season’s award-winning Miss Saigon) as adept at spectacle as she is at more intimate dramatic-comedic productions at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse.

While some audience members on the right (as opposed to left) side of the religious spectrum may have issues with Jesus Christ Superstar’s more outré elements, a production as stellarly cast, performed and designed as this one is likely to prove a thrilling, entertaining ticket-seller for CLOSBC, and a great way to keep the Easter spirit running through mid-May.

Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Boulevard, Redondo Beach.

–Steven Stanley
April 28, 2009
                                                                   Photos: Alysa Brennan

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