Fort Worth — Fame has eclipsed all other aims, today. It’s just one viral web post away. With it, power and money are sure to follow. All you have to do is get everyone talking about you. The Kardashians are proof positive of how talk trumps…everything.
It’s about buzz.
And so it is, that Jesus Christ Superstar, a throwback programing choice by Casa Mañana, starts to feel surprisingly current. The orchestra replaces most of the gummy fuzz that you’d recognize from your old vinyl recording with cleaner sounds. Add to that director/choreographer Josh Rhodes crisp staging and musical director/conductor James Cunningham’s bright tempo and things begin to sparkle. What’s left is a grand, chilling passion play infused with the complex human frailties we all share.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice created the piece for a different time and in places the fringes show, but the subject matter is deeper than other timepiece musicals like Hair. The title reveals the central tension by labeling the humble sacrificial Jesus as a superstar. Everything that comes with that exultation drives the show to its inevitable conclusion. The apostles, eager for success, focus on the wrong things. The powers that be are threatened. Jesus worries that they’re missing the point. And Judas, our narrator, thinks the whole thing has gotten out of hand. The anniversary of Sept. 11 makes the ripples caused by one man in the Middle East seem all the more palpable.
Adam Koch’s set begins as two tall, walls meeting in an imposing corner at center stage beyond which are two eerie, vertical blocks. Their bland exterior is an ingenious bargain with projection designer, Brad Peterson. Their lack of detail allows him to change their texture from blocks to ivy to columns, at will. Meanwhile, they function as an elevated promenade and, at times, a rolling reveal. Samuel Rushen carefully lights around the projections so that the scenes carry the right emotional weight without blanching the texture projected behind them.
It’s just good design. Tammy Spencer’s costumes belong under the same heading, especially with the period shift in the last musical number. It’s the costume equivalent of a key change, but the effect was refreshing and reinforced the feeling that this isn’t a story best left on the shelf.
Michael Hunsaker makes for a solid Judas. Here is not a shrinking, shy-eyed double crosser, but a robust, if frenzied, power broker. By extreme contrast, Daniel Rowan’s waif-like Jesus of Nazareth exudes peace and gentleness. Both men have the vocal range for Webber’s extreme score. True to character, Hunsaker is more apt to attack the top end, while Rowan’s high notes are more ethereal. Rounding out the trio as Mary Magdalene is the serene Jackie Burns. All three have moments to shine in solo numbers that transcend their vocal talent.
And that’s what sets this production apart.
Under Josh Rhodes’ direction, the dilemma of the characters reaches past Andrew Lloyd Webber’s catchy melodic phrases and grips the audience. Hunsaker as Judas pleading that he not be damned for all time. Rowan as Jesus summoning the strength to follow through on his father’s unfathomable plan. Burns as Mary longing to find a new way to express her love. These are all intimate moments of character driven crisis that bring the human struggle home to the audience.
This isn’t to take away from the crowds. The opening choreography may lead you into a false sense of simplicity with the cautious Apostles assembling. Make no mistake. This ensemble can take the evening to an untethered extreme. If the solos are about the individual in crisis, the group numbers are an exercise in the wild will of the crowd. As the music builds in volume and complexity, the sense of safety disappears. At the height of the show, there’s a long discordant vocal piece that conveys the weight of the evening without words. Combined with the staging wizardry, it is a truly, terrifying climax.
Two great standouts that must be mentioned, also, are Glenn Steven Allen’s Pilate and B.J. Cleveland’s Herod. Each has the opposite tone, but with equal effect. Allen brings a depth to Pilate when dealing with the non-combative Jesus that makes us feel for his difficult situation. Cleveland brings the house down with every bit of musical flair he can muster. He’s a breath of fresh air and terrifying at the same time. Credit to the rest of the production for being strong enough to keep his show stopping number from being show stealing.
Though the overall effect of the show is humbling, you’ll still go to the car humming those famous melodies. As they come back over the next few days, you get little reminders of your evening under the Casa dome.
And then, you can post about it on your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.