By Lynn Venhaus
After seeing “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Muny last summer and the NBC live concert performance Easter Sunday, I wondered if Stray Dog could bring anything fresh to yet another interpretation. This one works in surprising ways.
The vibrant cast embraced director Justin Been’s vision and quickly hushed any doubters. He wanted to examine how history and humanity repeats itself throughout the ages. Time and place was listed as: “A distant future in the Golgotha Territory currently under occupation by the Roman Empire.”
With enough passion and energy to power an Ameren substation, the finely-tuned ensemble gave Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera real heat.
Think ‘80s New Wave meets “Mad Max: Fury Road” in a stylized dystopian setting. Miles Bledsoe’s mod-punk make-up and hair, and costume designer Eileen Engel’s angular tunics and hardcore street look accented the harsh reality of divisive times.
Ever since the 1970 concept album – the brown-boxed 2-album set! – became a full-fledged production, the musical has been a blank canvas for re-invention. The apostles as a boy band, a strange mash-up of New Testament and contemporary, and a ‘60s revolution hippie vibe are just a few versions I’ve seen.
It’s been nearly 50 years since Webber and Rice introduced themselves and their alternative look at the last week of Jesus’ life, exploring his struggles as a man and Messiah. That pulsating score, the driving guitar beat holds up today, although there are certainly affectations related to the rebel yell of its cutting-edge post-60s birth in the script. The second act is less on solid ground than the first.
One of the show’s strengths is Mike Hodges’ rigorous choreography, which gives it a gritty, urban feel, and the spirited dancers displayed much exuberance. The overall theme helped in the convincing transition into a mob mentality.
As for the leading roles – those characters have always been lightning rods for controversy, so the pressure’s on, but Omega Jones and Phil Leveling delivered confident portrayals as Jesus and Judas.
Perhaps it’s the intimate Tower Grove Abbey setting, or that the pair have worked together before, most recently in last summer’s “Ragtime,” but you feel the nuances of Jesus’ and Judas’ complicated friendship, setting the tone in “Strange Thing, Mystifying” and then cementing it in “The Last Supper.”
Been deconstructed the relationships, and each performer went below the surface as both men wrestled with destiny. Jones brought out more of Jesus’ heavy burden, while Leveling displayed Judas’ torturous conflicts.
The vocal demands are intensive, but the performers fully committed. They might not nail every note – oh that range is difficult – but they showed new facets of their abilities. Leveling’s fierceness was impressive on “Heaven on Their Minds” and the heart-wrenching “Damned for All Time/Blood Money,” with “Judas’ Death” indeed a ‘moment.’
Jones’ was best contemplating his course and his responsibilities, “Poor Jerusalem” and the grueling “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).” As expected, the gut-wrenching “The Arrest” and “Trial Before Pilate” are demanding for all.
Heather Matthews has a good voice and competently sang “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Everything’s All Right,” but an emotional connection was lacking, and she was quite ineffective as Mary Magdalene. A black germ mask was a bizarre touch too.
Lavonne Byers as Pontius Pilate could have been stunt casting, but she turned out to be a strong, forceful presence. Her voice went admirably low.
With his deep, rich voice, Jon Hey was imposing as Caiaphas, and Mike Hodges showed a creepy edge as Annas. Riley Dunn’s strong vocals energized Simon Zealotes.
The always ebullient Kevin Corpuz, a standout triple threat in every show, had an opportunity to shine as Peter, capably handling “Peter’s Denial” and “Could We Start Again, Please.”
As he is often in a villain role, Gerry Love was well-suited to present the goofy “King Herod’s Song,” and wisely chose not to make Herod a flamboyant buffoon, instead with a vaudevillian snake-oil salesman approach.
The entire cast is composed of people who have appeared at Stray Dog before, but they displayed new facets from “What’s the Buzz” to “Superstar,” and emphasized Been’s look at how control can warp and shift a populace.
Josh Smith’s scenic design allowed Been to accomplish some interesting staging. How they handled Judas’ suicide was one of the best choices I’ve seen.
Did we need a faithful accounting of the Biblical story? Nope. That’s never the point of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Most compelling about this production is that it brought out contemporary challenges in yet another cautionary tale.
Selecting “Jesus Christ Superstar” for a season is an ambitious, bold move, and Stray Dog raised the bar for the next one.
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 somewhat 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.