By Jeff Ritter
Stray Dog Theatre’s venue certainly feels right for the somewhat controversial rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.” In 1970, lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber took a non-traditional approach with their concept album, portraying the Jews as Roman sympathizers, and Judas as a sympathetic character who tragically overstepped in trying to show Jesus the “error” of his ways. It eventually became a musical and a film.
The stage, in the century-old Tower Grove Abbey with beautiful stain glass windows, was boldly designed with a building and balcony to one side and a prominent staircase taking up much of the real estate to hide the house band beneath. The performance itself was not quite as grand.
Omega Jones and Phil Leveling star as Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot respectively. Both are talented actors and fine singers, as were most of the ensemble. It was the singing that felt just a little off.
Operatic rock songs are not the easiest pieces to sing. In rock music, guys like Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, Ronnie James Dio and Freddie Mercury come to mind as having the range to hit that high heavy metal shriek. Ted “Jesus” Neely and Carl “Judas” Anderson from the 1973 film were both able to hit the high operatic notes when necessary.
Jones and Leveling give it a valiant effort but just couldn’t quite get there. I thought both were better at lower octaves, but that also made them sound too “traditional musical theatre,” for lack of a better term, and not “operatic rock” enough.
Leveling may have been singing above his optimal range for much of the show because I had a hard time understanding him towards the end of the second act. That could also be attributed to the house band sounding louder in the second act and drowning him out.
Getting the sound levels balanced for the vocalists and the band in a small venue is no doubt a delicate task. Perhaps the actors were having a difficult time hearing the melody coming from under the stairs with the somewhat more subdued sound levels in the first act.
Sometimes, the pair sounded just half a beat off from the music. However, at other times they seemed to pair very well, particularly on “Strange Thing, Mystifying” and “The Last Supper.”
Both actors were wonderful in their physical and facial performances. Leveling brought Judas to life as a man in deep personal conflict, and his death scene was a more believable action of a man driven mad than the hanging of Judas, as told in the Bible.
As Mary Magdalene, Heather Matthews’ singing sounded technically fine, but seemed to lack passion. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” came across as simply a true statement and not a declaration of pure love.
She begins the show wearing a black mask over her mouth, which doesn’t affect the quality of her voice too badly but is very distracting to see. Influenza safeguard or period accurate attire for a “whore” as the modern Bible depicts Magdalene, either way it just didn’t work.
Gerry Love, a longtime actor and no stranger to the Stray Dog stage is King Herod, a role that has always felt out of place in comparison to the rest of the show. His rendition of “Herod’s Song” didn’t change that feeling, as the song simply comes off as a typical musical number and breaks the rock opera flow. Love’s ad-lib at the very end of the song drew a huge gale of welcomed laughter.
Jon Hey excels as Caiaphas, who fears that if Jesus brings his growing entourage to Jerusalem it would be too much for the Jews to bear, should the ever watchful eyes of Rome look upon such proceedings with disfavor.
His deep baritone voice reverberates through the venue on “This Jesus Must Die” and his physical stature makes him feel like the true villain of the story, furthering the premise that poor Judas is merely misunderstood.
Mike Hodges serves as both choreographer and the reptilian Annas, Caiaphas’ right-hand man. He offers a nice countertenor to Hey’s deep rumbling baritone, giving the duo a surprisingly solid harmony. Hodges is virtually never still on stage, constantly hunched down as if ready to spring into action at any moment. Where Hey intimidates with sheer size, Hodges projects a manic threat of imminent danger.
As Peter, Kevin Corpuz isn’t given a lot of solo spotlight time, but he makes the most of what he gets, letting his surprisingly strong voice fly on “Could We Start Again Please.” It would be nice to see Kevin land some bigger roles soon, as he seems to have all the tools to be a leading man. He’s a handsome fellow, good voice and dances well too. He’s one to watch out for wherever he lands a role.
Likewise, Riley Dunn as Simon isn’t given much to do. He is featured a little on “Simon Zealotes,” entreating Jesus to take more active steps to drive the Romans out of the Holy Land. As with the original recording, the song features the ensemble a bit too much and Dunn simply doesn’t stand out from the crowd.
Lavonne Byers as Pontius Pilate is a little over the top, and that may or may not be a bad thing, depending on what you’re looking for. Compared to Jesus’ resignation to his fate, Pilate is both bombastic and reluctant. Upon meeting Jesus, Byers pulls her right leg up to the next step on the grand staircase, looking like an exaggeration of the Captain Morgan marketing pose.
She wheels and spins to make her cloak sweep behind her, attempting to look a little more dangerous, but for someone at odds over their duty, it seemed needlessly showy. When she orders 39 lashings of Jesus, Byers looks absolutely horrified by her actions, but after turning her lash to the guards to continue the beating, she often isn’t looking at Jesus at all.
The guards don’t always swing according to her cadence, which isn’t her fault, but was distracting to the audience and made Jones’ job that much more difficult, reacting to strikes that may or may not have landed yet.
The ensemble of Michael Baird, Maria Bartolotta, Tristan Davis, Ebony Easter, Corey Fraine, Stephen Henley, William Humphrey, Lindsey Jones, Tim Kaniecki, Gerry Love, Kevin O’Brien, Belinda Quimby, Damn Schmid and Chrissie Watkins, is asked to do a lot in this show.
They’re the background dancers, the throngs of people clamoring for or against Jesus, the chorus, and they are everywhere. From the large steps to the aisles between and behind the church pews that are used for seating the Stray Dog audience, they are constantly in motion, singing, chanting, moaning, carrying Jones’ around, chasing the Apostles — and it gets to be a bit much.
Bringing a show into the audience once or twice can be a fun effect, but it happens so often here that it almost certainly causes the audience to miss a nuanced expression or gesture, or perhaps even a lyric or two.
Perhaps director Justin Been could have utilized that gimmick less if the stairs didn’t envelop so much of the stage. I’m not sure how anyone seated stage left could even see half of the performance, as the area next to the building and balcony at stage right would be mostly obscured.
The costume choices by Eileen Engel are unique and exciting. The antagonists are sporting angular cut tunics of a synthetic-looking gray-brown material, invoking a “Game of Thrones” meets George Orwell’s “1984” feel. The ensemble looks a bit more post-apocalyptic and colorful.
Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene all stand out from the rest in simpler solid colors: Jesus in a long coat instead of the typical Biblical smock, Judas in resplendent white, juxtaposing the traditional hero and villain color scheme, and Mary in a dark dress to match Jesus and, while lovely, also looked a little bit like a stylized ninja or Arabian assassin with her black mask.
Perhaps it’s ultimately unfair to compare this cast to the original album or the classic film, or even to the very recent network television performance featuring Grammy winners John Legend and Sara Bareilles, “Hamilton” star Brandon Victor Dixon, and rock legend Alice Cooper.
Compared to other Stray Dog productions, it feels a little too loose. It’s possible that opening night jitters or the 40-degree temperature swings St. Louis seems to experience daily this spring could have contributed to an uneven start, and the rest of the run might come off very well.
Fans of Rice and Webber material in general and “Jesus Christ Superstar” in particular will no doubt flock to the Tower Grove Abbey, and many of the performances are already sold out.
Your experience may be a stronger representation of the actors’ singing abilities and the director’s decisions to crowd the stage with such an enormous set piece and bring the action into the aisles more than should be necessary.
In full disclosure, this reviewer is not generally a fan of Webber’s material and regards Rice’s lyrics in this piece as much too lazy, repeating phrases ad nauseum. “What’s the Buzz” is as grating as musical numbers get.
Stray Dog Theatre presents “Jesus Christ Superstar” from April 12 to April 28, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee in St. Louis. For more information, visit www.straydogtheatre.org.
NOTE: St. Louis Limelight Magazine allows reviewers to write their own opinions, and if two reviewers have someone opposite takes, we are publishing both as a “He Said, She Said” commentary — a way to express their thoughts without having to agree. Everyone has their own set of eyes, ears, likes and dislikes.