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Edited and Published by Robert W. McDowell

June 16, 2022 Issue
PART 4 (June 15, 2022)

A FREE Weekly E-mail Newsletter Covering Theater, Dance, Music, and Film in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill/Carrboro Area of North Carolina Since April 2001.

PART 4A: TRIANGLE THEATER REVIEW BY JEROME DAVIS

Jesus  Christ  Superstar  at  DPAC  Is  One  of  the  Best
Productions of One of the Best Musicals Ever Written


On June 14-19, DPAC will present the U.S. tour of the 2017 Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival winner, Jesus Christ Superstar,
starring Aaron LaVigne as Jesus and Jenny Rubaii as Mary (photo by Matthew-Murphy/Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Everything dies, baby
That's a fact.
But maybe everything that dies,
Some day comes back.

Bruce Springsteen: "Atlantic City"

Streaming into the Durham Performing Arts Center on Tuesday evening felt more than a little bit like going to one of those rock concerts where the band features only one or two "original" members, backed by nameless musicians half their age; and the audience is a touch past the time when the tie-dyed shirts and ponytails actually suited them.

But the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar: A Rock Opera that lit up the DPAC stage on Tuesday night wanted none of that nostalgia thing. The production is curiously advertised as a "50th Anniversary Production," even though the album came out 52 years ago, the first stage production was mounted 51 years ago, and the production on view at DPAC began performing in 2016, 45 years after the original production.

Summit, NJ-based Work Light Productions' current North American tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, based on the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre's 2016 London production, which won the 2017 Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival, is a heavenly event that does, miraculously, bear some of the power and emotion of a rock-and-roll show from back in the day.

It does so, not by trying to mimic what was, but by finding a new vocabulary to tell this ageless story. For that, you can thank director Timothy Sheader. And for the glorious songs, you can thank Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.


Aaron LaVigne (center) stars as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar (photo by Matthew-Murphy/Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

There's a moment in the overture, as the band segues into "Superstar," in which a note rolls up on you so forcefully, so specifically, and so inevitably that one is left wondering if Mr. Lloyd Webber's legacy wouldn't have been secure had he stopped right there. Fortunately, he kept writing.

The songs in Jesus Christ Superstar are small miracles. They come at you like haymakers thrown at the end of a heavyweight bout, one after another, each landing with force and knocking you back on your heels. If there is a bad song in this score, I don't know what it is.

The production on display at DPAC through Sunday, June 19th, began at the Open Air Theatre, a lovely outdoor venue in Regent's Park in London. I had the good fortune to attend one of its earliest performances, and walked out, touched again by the age-old story. Timothy Sheader, who serves as artistic director of the Open Air, and with his design team found a way to create an intimacy there in the woods, surrounded by the teeming and majestic city.

As the audience was just settling in, the sun sinking beyond the distant forest, the wind blowing gently in your hair, a blond, ponytailed dude in black jeans and a t-shirt shuffled toward the front of the stage's multiple-tiered set, his Fender Stratocaster® (as I recall) slung awfully low, and let fly the first stinging notes of that overture. I caught my breath. This actually felt like rock and roll, a bar musicals seldom clear.


Eric A. Lewis (center) stars as Simon in Jesus Christ Superstar (photo by Matthew-Murphy/Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

What Mr, Sheader and his cast unveiled over the next two hours was intimate, personal, and true to the rock-and-roll spirit of the late 1960s, with all its political upheaval, sexual and chemical experimentation, military criminality, and fierce insistence that everything would be okay if we could all just get back to the garden. That production released into the theatrical firmament a new star, Tyrone Huntley, whose Judas was a thing to behold, his voice sublime.

Sheader kept the proceedings lowkey for the most part, creating in the outdoor amphitheater the feeling that a group of friends were meeting on a hillside to hear a beautiful and sad story told. The current itineration on display at DPAC, as it winds its way across the country, cannot quite match that sense of place (a few fake trees onstage don't get the job done). One reason is that the DPAC is a proscenium stage, which by design segregates the artists from those of us in the "real world."

The Open Air, on the other hand, is more of a thrust stage, with the audience wrapped around the stage a bit. This means what once felt like an organic happening, with the audience as willing participants has become more of a well-choreographed but slightly distanced "show." But the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice play is best served when the story evolves into spectacle.

Here it seems to start out as one, which gives it no place to go. To some degree, that is mitigated by the powerful performance of Aaron LaVigne as Jesus. He prowls the stage like a caged animal, looking for a way out but also imminently aware of the eyes on him and of the impact that his choices will make. He seems to be playing with his power, testing it out, pulling it back when it surprises or shocks him.


The tour of Jesus Christ Superstar stars Paul Lewis Lessard as Herod (photo by Matthew-Murphy/Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

I found it believable that a group of young people would pick up stakes and follow this young man wherever he led. Jenny Rubaii as Mary wisely does not try to match the vocal fireworks of Jesus and Judas (played by Omar Lopez-Cepero), but delivers a fine, concerned and dubious "I Don't Know How to Love Him." Other actors in the cast shine, though none stands out in a way that would throw this fine ensemble out of balance. What they do bring to the table is some spectacular and precise dancing, choreographed by Drew McOnie, which threatens to shake the building's foundation. This American cast had it all over their London predecessors.

My concerns with the production, other than the fact that it could not reproduce the communal feel of the Open Air, include the fact that the sound engineers did not seem too concerned with clarity. Many, indeed, most of the lyrics were a mush of vowels. Like water in the desert, consonants were hard to come by. Sure, most in the audience know all the words anyway, but for any new disciples that might happen in, it would sure be nice to hear those words.

I am also concerned with what appeared to be a significant alteration to the Herod character, played at DPAC by Paul Lewis Lessard. Herod's gender-neutral, Speedo®-clad presence at the Open Air was pulled back into a more PG-13 version. Apparently, though Jesus was more than happy to kick over the moneylenders' tables, Mr. Sheader took a more reserved approach. And speaking of pulling back, why did they feel compelled to end the play, not with the eerie silence of the tomb, but with a peculiar meeting of Jesus and Judas in what seemed like the afterlife, for no apparent reason other than to have a sit-together and stare off into space?


Aaron LaVigne (left) and Tommy Sherlock starred as Jesus and Pilate (photo by Matthew-Murphy/Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

All that said, there are great and powerful moments in this production, from Judas' receiving of the 30 pieces of silver, to the Last Supper tableau, to the spectacularly dramatic death of Judas. But the greatest compliment that can be paid to this production is that, like all great stories, when told well, it did leave us praying for a different outcome.

Like the deaths in Romeo & Juliet, the trial of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird or the abrupt and brutal finality of The Diary of Anne Frank, when the story is told this well, we hold our breaths, hoping that it will somehow end differently. I would get over to DPAC this week if you can afford it. You'll see one of the best productions of one of the best musicals ever written.


Aaron LaVigne and Omar Lopez-Cepero starred as Jesus and Judas (photo by Matthew-Murphy/Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR: A ROCK OPERA (In Person at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday, June 15-19), directed by Timothy Sheader, choreographed by Drew McOnie, presented as part of Truist Broadway at DPAC, and starring Aaron LaVigne as Jesus, Omar Lopez-Cepero as Judas, Jenny Rubaii as Mary, Alvin Crawford as Caiaphas, Tommy Sherlock as Pilate, Tyce Green as Annas, Paul Lewis Lessard as Herod, Eric A. Lewis as Simon, and Tommy McDowell as Peter (Durham Performing Arts Center in Durham). DIGITAL PROGRAM: https://issuu.com/dpac0/docs/dpac_jesuschristsuperstar_digital. VIDEOS: https://www.youtube.com/user/jesuschristsuperstar. 2021-22 TRUIST BROADWAY AT DPAC SEASON: https://www.dpacnc.com/truist-broadway/season/2021-2022-truist-broadway-at-dpac. THE PRESENTER/VENUE: https://www.dpacnc.com/, https://www.facebook.com/DPACNC, https://www.instagram.com/DPACNC/, https://twitter.com/DPAC, and https://www.youtube.com/user/DPACLive. DIRECTIONS: https://www.dpacnc.com/plan-your-visit/directions. PARKING: https://www.dpacnc.com/plan-your-visit/parking. DPAC COVID-19 REQUIREMENTS: https://www.dpacnc.com/events/vaccination-and-covid-19-test-requirements. THE TOUR: https://ustour.jesuschristsuperstar.com/, https://www.ibdb.com/tour-production/jesus-christ-superstar-523449, https://www.facebook.com/JesusChristSuperstar/, https://www.instagram.com/jesuschristsuperstar/, https://twitter.com/JCSTheMusical, and http://www.youtube.com/user/jesuschristsuperstar. TOUR CAST: https://ustour.jesuschristsuperstar.com/cast-creative/cast/. THE SHOW: https://www.jesuschristsuperstar.com/, https://www.andrewlloydwebber.com/show/jesus-christ-superstar/, https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/jesus-christ-superstar-4880, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070239/, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_Christ_Superstar. THE SCRIPT (excerpts): https://books.google.com/books. BARON ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER: https://www.andrewlloydwebber.com/, https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/andrew-lloyd-webber-12073, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0515908/, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Andrew-Lloyd-Webber-Baron-Lloyd-Webber-of-Sydmonton, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Lloyd_Webber. SIR TIM RICE: http://www.timrice.co.uk/, https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/tim-rice-8890, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0005358/, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Tim-Rice, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Rice. TICKETS: $30 and up, plus taxes and fees. Call 800-982-2787 or click here to buy tickets. GROUPS (10+ tickets): 919-680-2787, Groups@DPACnc.com, and https://www.dpacnc.com/events/groups-services. INFORMATION: 919-680-2787 or CustomerService@DPACnc.com.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Raleigh, NC director and actor Jerome Davis and his wife, Simmie Kastner, founded Burning Coal Theatre Company in 1985. For Burning Coal, Davis has directed Rat in the Skull, Winding the Ball (in Raleigh and New York City), The Steward of Christendom, Hamlet, Night and Day, David Edgar's Iron Curtain Trilogy (in Raleigh and London), Company, Shining City, The Weir and St. Nicholas (the last as an actor), The Road to Mecca, Juno & the Paycock, The Man Who Tried to Save the World (as playwright), Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Taming of the Shrew, Inherit the Wind, Hysteria, 1960, The Seafarer, Enron, Jude the Obscure Parts 1 & 2 and Sunday in the Park with George. He has also directed Benjamin Britten's Turn of the Screw for the North Carolina Opera, Of Mice and Men for Temple Theatre in Sanford, and Red for the Actors Guild of Lexington. Jerry Davis has studied with Uta Hagen, Nikos Psacharapolous, and Julie Bovasso. He has studied or worked with Adrian Hall, Richard Jenkins, Hope Davis, Ellen Burstyn, Oliver Platt, Amanda Peet and Ralph Waite. He has worked at Trinity Rep in Providence; NJ Shakespeare; People's Light & Theatre, near Philadelphia, the Phoenix Theatre at SUNY/Purchase; Avalon Rep; the Mint; Columbia University; and many others.

 


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