So many intelligent, well integrated elements inform Keith Baker’s genius-laden production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Bristol Riverside Theater that isolating one crowning, guiding idea is difficult.
Baker takes what was conceived first and essentially as a vocal work, an early rock recording with a familiar narrative, and endows it with a concise, powerful vision that knits Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s choral masterpiece with literary, historical, Biblical, and modern contexts that convert it brilliantly into a moving achievement in theater. It is the most creative and successful I’ve seen sitting through dozens of “Superstars.”
Everything that happens on Baker’s stage keeps your eye and intellect engaged by filling in gaps, pauses, and leaps in Rice’s libretto. While the familiar score, so do the production’s visual tableaux, activity on corners of the stage, marvelous projections by John Hoey, and constant choreography by Stephen Casey. All of this gives this “Superstar” texture and pulsating life that comes in absorbing waves and makes the Passion as real and immediate as any Paul, Matthew, Luke, or John could do — while remaining true to Rice’s cynical, irreverent snarkiness.
Make no mistake. Although “Jesus Christ Superstar” may be regarded as the first in the canon of Andrew Lloyd Webber, it is more accurately and delightfully “The Gospel According to Tim Rice.” Lloyd Webber’s music is vibrant and potent. It creates proper doses of drama and comedy to match both the Passion and Rice’s attitude toward it, but it is Rice who supplies the wit, variety, and thought that make “Superstar” special and worth regarding as a total and admirable work.
To Baker’s abounding credit, both Rice’s interpretation and the traditional, respectful, religious views of Christ’s epiphany have their day — simultaneously and seamlessly, along with elegantly, viscerally, and exhilaratingly.
Baker rates so much praise, congratulation, and gratitude, it’s taken until now to get to the astounding, affecting work of Patrick H. Dunn as a moody, beset Jesus with a versatile and flawless vocal range, and the marvelous companion work of Adam Kemmerer as a sincere, confused, sympathetic Judas that puts a second, complex character on stage in moving, vocally impressive fashion.
This is a “Jesus Christ Superstar” to be savored. Baker has given Lloyd Webber and Rice’s piece layers that demand concentration, invite thought, and stun with their virtuosity and imagination while keeping it thoroughly entertaining, and effervescent as a popular, enduring work of theater.
I began by writing of the components that inform Baker’s production. In reflecting, the New Testament itself is a major influence. It would account for a lot of the visual references, not part of “Superstar’s” score that give vivacity and epic scope to Baker’s staging.
Baker seems to have been motivated by the first line of Rice’s libretto, which has Judas saying/singing “My mind is clearer now” and provides a context and springing off point of looking at the Passion, both within and in addition to “Superstar’s” written boundaries, in past tense from Judas’s point of view. Doing so gives Baker license to let his vision run freely while being cohesive and disciplined, and before Judas speaks, Baker has established his concept and the bounty of it.
As Lloyd Webber’s stirring overture plays, Kemmerer’s Judas roams Tatarowicz’s steps in obvious agitation. Meanwhile, Dunn’s Jesus is seen stage right washing the feet of the poor. Already, Baker has interpolated Scripture into a broad framework. He has shown you who Rice’s Judas is and why he is, to use his words, alarmed. As Judas paces with purpose and rising anger, Jesus basks in the crowds and in his ability to draw and awe them.
Judas stews until he must speak. Visually and temporally, relationships and attitudes are established, not only between Jesus and Judas, but between Jesus, his followers, and his hangers-on. Everything from adulation to fickleness is seen on the Bristol stage. Including the watchful, fearful attention people threatened by Jesus’ popularity pay to this public favorite.
Just as scenes from the time of the Passion are created, Baker shrewdly depends on the hindsight of Judas’s opening words. He presents a distant past while lending it contemporaneity by dressing his cast in modern clothes and giving characters smart phones and other 21st-century accoutrements. Jesus’ story remains specific while becoming a universal study in all fame and lives of the famous.
In fidelity to Rice, this Jesus does get a taste for worship. Judas is the one who notices how far it is taking him from his precepts and teaching. Judas is not the only one noticing. Caiaphas and the high priests of Jerusalem, and the super cynical King Herod, and Pontius Pilate all add Jesus to the surveillance list as someone whose light might need at some point to be doused.
Rice creates great characters, and Baker gives each of them their due: Steve Steiner showing Caiaphas’ cunning, concern, and power; Darren Ritchie endowing his golf club-carrying Pilate a bored, don’t-bother-me kind of swagger while compassionately giving Jesus a chance to avoid prosecution; and Danny Rutigliano, gold-wigged and looking like the smarmiest of Las Vegas producers, as a hilarious, show-stopping Herod.
Fine performances are also turned in by Robert Farruggia, whose brilliant voice gives Annas full character and contrasts marvelously with Steiner’s ranging bass as Caiaphas; Julian Alvarez as a jubilantly fawning Simon; and Derrick Cobey in several roles.
Baker’s cast and Douglas G. Lutz’s orchestra are superb in general, but the three leads are outstanding. Dunn shows the weariness of Jesus, brooding over everything, caring more about his effect than his message, and setting himself above others around him before becoming a truly tragic figure wondering why so much went wrong and bargaining with God, his alleged father, for his life. Dunn takes us on a broad emotional ride, his control and effectiveness as a singer and actor laudable.
Kemmerer makes you like and appreciate Judas, as Tim Rice seems to intend. He, standing aside, is the one who does see clearly all that is happening, not just the buzz but the hype, and Kemmerer gives his Judas depth and compassion.
Ciji Prosser is illuminating as Mary Magdalene, claiming her place against Judas’ disdain, proving to be a true friend, and having one outstanding moment when Mary removes the wig that adds blond to her hair and shows how much she has embraced the best of Jesus’ teachings. A charismatic actress, Prosser takes Mary’s signature songs and makes them transcendent.
This production is a total joy. It demonstrates the power and glory of theater, presents a timeless story from multiple points of view, marries wit and seriousness, from the steps that say “Caiaphas’s crib” and show lines from Scripture, to Dunn alone on the cross wringing our hearts. Best of all, it allows sway to Rice’s jaundiced view of religion while offering sometimes profound respect for Jesus and the Passion.
Jesus Christ Superstar, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, April 16. $46 to $52. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.