Candlelight Pavilion hits the Easter-season jackpot with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, a spellbinding big-stage revival that earns highest marks for Chuck Ketter and John LaLonde’s dynamic, imaginative direction, its all-around stunning production design, and a cast to rival regional theater’s finest. (Oh, and there’s not a note of prerecorded instrumentals to be heard.)

 The darker cousin to Stephen Schwartz’s cheerier, less vocally demanding (and therefore more frequently revived) Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar takes us almost immediately to Jesus’ (Kyle Short) final days.

Or so the rock opera usually begins.

Not so at Candlelight, where directors Ketter and LaLonde invite us first to today’s Holy Land, to an archeological dig protected by armed guards and inhabited not just by contemporary Israelis but by the ghosts of those who lived and died there two millennia ago and now retell their Biblical tale precisely where it once took place.

 These include reformed prostitute Mary Magdalene (Emily Chelsea), who’s got a romantic thing for her lord and savior Jesus Christ (Kyle Short); Pontius Pilate (Stanton Kane Morales), whose premonitions of Jesus’ crucifixion have him in a tizzy; high priest Caiaphas (John LaLonde, stepping in at the performance reviewed), who correctly perceives how dangerous this Jesus might be; fellow priest Annas (Bryan Martinez), persuaded by Caiaphas to fear Jesus’ potential for bringing down Rome; Simon Zealotes (Nicholas Alexander), one of Jesus’ apostles, and the one who encourages JC to fight the Romans; King Herod (Robert Hoyt), who’d like to see even a few of those miracles that have made Jesus Christ the superstar he is; and of course the man whose name is now synonymous with betrayal, Judas (Richard Bermudez).

Under Ketter and LaLonde’s inspired direction, performances could not be better.

 Short not only looks and acts Jesus to perfection, his rock falsetto is positively stratospheric, and the real Judas he would surely have given thirty pieces of silver for Candlelight superstar Bermudez’s sensational pipes (and another thirty for his looks and physique). Short’s stunningly sung and powerfully acted “Gethsemane” lays bare Jesus’ suffering, regret, sorrow, fear, and anger, while Bermudez’s gut-wrenching breakdown and subsequent reprise of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” retitled “Judas’ Death” earn him deserved cheers.

 Among featured players, Chelsea gets the rock opera’s most famous pair of songs as whore-next-door Mary Magdalene (“I Don’t Know How To Love Him” and “Everything’s Alright”) and she sings them quite exquisitely indeed. Morales belts “Pilate’s Dream” all the way up to the farthest box seats, his soaring tenor countered by LaLonde’s magnificent bass. Martinez not only matches them vocally, his Annas is the polar opposite of La Cage’s Jacobo, and Alexander’s rocktastic “Simon Zealotes” is equally revelatory coming from Beauty And The Beast’s Lefou.

 As for Herod, Hoyt (who also plays Apostle Philip) makes “King Herod’s Song (Try it and See)” not only a show-stopper, he does so in a gold lamé toga.

JCSS’s triple-threat ensemble give the production’s stars a run for their drachmas every step of the way in multiple roles (and just as many lightning-fast costume changes in early-New Testament-meets-Vegas garb coordinated by Merrill Grady).

 Not only do Sarah Ayotte, Matt Carvin (Priest), Tad Fujioka (Apostle John), Orlando Montes (Peter), Michael Moon (Priest), Christopher Nevarez (Apostle Jacob), Kristin O’Connell, Lauren Patrice, Daniel J. Reyes (Apostle Bartholomew), and Scott Roberts (Apostle Matthew) sing spectacularly under Jo Monteleone’s expert musical direction, they score dance points throughout to Dustin Ceithamer’s Bible-meets-Broadway choreography, with special snaps to Dreamgirls Ayotte, O’Connell, and Patrice’s “Superstar” backup and to Montes as the thrice-denying Peter.

Audiences are five-times blessed by Jesus Christ Superstar’s live-on-stage rock quintet (Julian Cantrell, David Catalan, Adrian Vega, band director Alan Waddington, and Seung Ah Waddington), with Edyn Hawke, Sierra Jimenez, Sophie Michaelson, and Faith Teuber not only manning the follow spots but adding to the production’s vocal harmonies.

 Ketter’s Middle East-evocative scenic design mixes present-day scaffolding with panoramas unchanged since Bible times, dramatically lit by Steve Giltner (lighting design provided by StreetLiteLLC), with Michon Gruber-Gonzales realistic wigs completing the production design mix.

Daniel Moorefield is stage manager and Montes is technical director.

 Executive chef Juan Alvarado and sous chef Maria Sandoval serve up Candlelight’s invariably yummy cuisine. Kudos as always to Candlelight Pavilion owner/producer Ben D. Bollinger, general manager/vice president Michael Bollinger, acting producer Mindy Teuber, and especially to artistic director LaLonde.

Thrilling and powerful and gorgeously staged and sung, Jesus Christ Superstar is Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater at its very best.

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Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont.

–Steven Stanley
April 9, 2017
Photos: James Sutter


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