It was opening night for the new eye-popping Montgomery College production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Whether by accident or by some divine ironic design, this opening took place on the eve of what many called the greatest media event in history: the funeral of one of the most beloved Christian leaders in memory, Pope John Paul II. Renowned for his emphasis on bringing the Christian message to young people, one could not help but think the late pontiff might have enjoyed the talent and youthful energy of this Serena Tripi production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, featuring the lyrics of Tim Rice, and the skillful direction of Ellen Ketchum.
In somewhat funky contemporary terms, the play loosely follows the biblical story, which the recent Mel Gibson film titled “The Passion of The Christ,” as Jesus is captured, put on trial, beaten and crucified. The action opens in a casino in Sin City, Nevada. The fashions are a bit raunchy (costume designer, Amanda Canfield), and the fine Curt Meyer set features twin staircases soaring heavenward. Music Director, David McKenery, and his talented band presided skillfully from center stage between the two staircases outlined in sparkling lights. And speaking of lights, the lighting designs of David Kerr were effective throughout the show, although his sound designs were not always as effective. But the talented Mr. Kerr was at his best displaying his fine singing voice in the role of Herod, even as he mocked Jesus and taunted him demanding a miracle. Another fine voice was that of Travis Bryant in the role of Judas. His was an explosive exploration of rage, betrayal and remorse. My one concern was that the rage sometimes seemed to threaten Bryant’s vocal control to an extent that might be damaging to the voice, a danger often faced by actors in fierce roles. Never the less, even when not every word of his lyrics could be discerned amid the raspy tantrums, Bryant gave an intense and compelling performance that was capped by Judas’ dramatic suicide, silhouetted against the vivid scarlet backlighting of Mr. Kerr.
The matter of sound was a larger issue in this production, which required rock music, stage microphones, body microphones, loud amplifiers etc. The balance in this equation did not always allow the audience to clearly hear the lyrics, and enunciation of singers was not always in top form. But generally I could agree with the comment of audience member (and noted Woodlands Hometown Hero) Bill Bootz, who remarked of this cast: “The voices are marvelous!” That certainly includes the fine singing of the Ensemble. Other prime examples included the impressive performances of Hilary Bryant as Mary Magdalene, Amanda Broomas as Simon Zealot, and Alan Mikolaj in his intense and very well enunciated performance as Pontius Pilate. And Mikolaj had more than one reason to be proud, as his handsome son, Benjamin Mikolaj, gave the performance of his young lifetime in the lead role of Jesus. On rare occasions I have had the opportunity to see a community theatre performer who might just as easily be on a Broadway stage. Young Mikolaj fit that bill perfectly with this stunning performance and a fine singing voice that was equally at home with both moments of gentleness and power. He seemed so in command and so naturally at home on the stage, it was quite remarkable. His pleasant countenance radiates a kind of joy that becomes central on the stage. His wide acting range was brutally tested in the well-staged and dramatic slow motion scourging of the Christ, and, of course, in the agonizing death on a visually piercing neon cross. I hope this lad has a great deal of acting in his future.
The musical score itself has much to offer, and one cannot help but compare its musical style to another Webber/Rice collaboration, “Evita.” Songs such as “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Superstar,” and “Hosanna,” have a familiarity even to those unfamiliar with the show. Staging of these and other numbers was well done with choreography by Brendan Cyrus. But I would suggest final rehearsals of future such productions bring in a few trusted observers to tell cast and director when lyrics are unintelligible or sound levels are problematic. This could sharpen an otherwise fine effort and take it to an even higher level.
“Superstar” will be performed at the Montgomery College Theatre (3200 College Park Drive) on April 14,15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday April 17th at 2 p.m. For information call: 936-273-7021.
(The Courier 4.13.05)