Friday, May 01, 2015

Fiddlehead Theatre Presents A Bold "Jesus Christ Superstar" at the Strand Theatre - Through May 3

The Fiddlehead Theatre  production of rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar" currently running at the Strand Theatre in Upham's Corner is not easy to encapsulate in a brief review.  Director Stacey Stephens has made some bold choices.  The story is now set in New York City on and after 9/11. Peter is played by a woman, and Mary Magdalene is cast as transgendered.  Let me address how these risky choices worked for me and how they did not completely achieve the Director's vision.

The Ground Zero setting shocked me, and caused me to ask the questions: "Why did the Director make this choice?  What correlations exist between the troubled 1st century Jerusalem and New York City in a panic over a terror attack?  Then I began to think along these lines: "The Jerusalem-based  trials and crucifixion of Jesus depicted in this opera (along with the resurrection, which is not part of the plot of this story) represent "Ground Zero" for the beginning of the faith that we now call Christianity.

In this production, Jesus first appears as he emerges from one of the World Trade Center towers - looking like Superman, and holding in his arms the lifeless body of Mary Magdalene. The image gave me chills.  It struck me almost as a reverse image of Michelangelo's iconic Pieta.

Justin Raymond Reeves as Jesus
S. Caron as Mary Magdalene
"Jesus Christ Superstar"
Fddlehead Theatre
Strand Theatre
Through May 3

Casting Mary Magdalene as a trangendered person, played by S. Caron, certainly caused me to draw parallels.  Mary Magdalene has been misunderstood throughout the two millennia that have elapsed since she walked the earth as one of Jesus' disciples.  Her sexuality has been questioned and she has been relegated to the status of prostitute, without strong historic evidence to prove that she actually served in that oldest of professions.  Where the casting choice fails to hit the mark is in S. Caron's vocal performance.  During the powerful ballad "I Don't Know How To Love Him," the actor's voice  was not always on the right pitch, and the transitions between falsetto head voice and lower register were not always smooth.

The set design by Mac Young is brilliant, and was strongly enhanced by the lighting design by Michael Clark-Wonson and Sound Design of Mark DeLuzio.  Costume design is by Stacey Stephens, Choreography by Kira Cowan-Troilo and Music Direction by Balint Varga.

While setting the action in lower Manhattan was a bold and risky artistic choice by the Director, and proved to be jarring and thought-provoking at the outset, it did nothing to advance or to clarify the telling of the story.  In a sense, this production takes a story firmly placed in the context of 30 A.D. Jerusalem, uproots it and transplants it atop the grid of 20th century Manhattan.  There ensues much narrative confusion.  I found myself asking questions like: "In modern day NYC, what role would a religious leader like High Priest Caiaphas have in determining the guilt or innocence of a public figure like Jesus.  What about the presence of a King - Herod?  The rare audience member not familiar with the Jesus story would have been totally lost in trying to following the sequence of events depicted on this stage.

The only way that this mash-up could work would be to grant the Director enough artistic license to let him tell the story in this way, ignoring the incompatibilities of the incongruous elements.  I did just that - suspended disbelief and let the music wash over me.

Here were some memorable moments offered up by cast members.
  • Justin Raymond Reeves portrays Jesus and has some wonderful vocal moments, especially in the stirring and heart-breaking "Gethsemane."  Because this is a sung-through opera, each actor is limited to creating a convincing character through voice, facial expressions, gestures and body language.  While strong vocally, Mr. Reeves is limited in his range of facial expressions, and I was never drawn to him as a charismatic figure who could turn the world on its head.
  • Devon Stone has created one of the most convincing Judas characters I have seen.  The part is written with much vocal wailing and shrill upper register singing.  Mr. Stone nailed every difficult passage and stands out in "Heaven On Their Mind" and "Damned For All Time."
  • Christhian Mancinas-Garcia delivers the best work I have seen him do to date as a troubled Pontius Pilate.  His rendition of "Pilate's Dream" is a highlight of this production.
  • Gene Dante sets just the right lounge-lizard tone as Herod, and his rendition of the ironic "King Herod's Song" is right on the money.
  • Brian Bakofen brings his impressive basso profundo chops to the role of High Priest Caiaphas, highlighted well in "This Jesus Must Die" and "The Arrest."
There is some wonderful ensemble singing, especally during "The Last Supper," sung while recreating the DaVinci painting eating pizza atop I-beams from the wreckage.

"The Last Supper"
"Jesus Christ Superstar"
Fddlehead Theatre
Strand Theatre
Through May 3

Other cast members not previously mentioned:

Jay Kelley, Samuel Forgie, Katie Howe, Janett "Becky" Bass, Kristl Courtemanche, Arthur Cuadros, Lydia Ruth Dawson, Rylee Doiron, Paul Hoover, Athena Horton, Steven Martin, Brian Miner, Kara Nelson, Carl-Michael Ogle, Alex Kirsten Paul, Christopher Leon Pittman, Anthony Rinaldo, Ryoko Seta, Gigi Watson.

Perhaps the most poignant moment occurs at the end, and comes as a result of another choice by Director Stephens.  Following the very moving and disturbing crucifixion scene when Jesus is taken off the cross and carried to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, the action ends.  The audience awaits the usual curtain call, but nothing happens.  I believe that there are at least two valid reasons for this choice.  A curtain call following such a moving and sacred moment could have felt sacrilegious.  But, even more significantly, we were all put in the position of wondering what would happen next.  Is that the end?  Will the cast members emerge from the sepulcher of the wings and take their bows, or have we reached the end of the line?  These are precisely the uncomfortable thoughts the disciples would have had in the hours and days following Jesus' crucifixion and death. "Is that the end of our gig as disciples?  Or will Jesus return as he had promised and take a curtain call.  Should we just wait or should we do something proactive?"  Brilliant!

Despite its flaws, this is a production of the classic Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice  rock opera well worth seeing.  You have this evening, Saturday and Sunday to catch it.  Click below for tickets:

Fiddlehead Theatre Website



No comments: