JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTARMusic by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Director & Choreographer: Josh Rhodes
Music Director: James Cunningham
Scenic Design: Adam Koch
Lighting Design: Samuel Rushen
Projection Design: Brad Peterson
Sound Design: Kyle McCord
Costume Design: Tammy Spencer
Hair, Wig & Makeup Design: Catherine Petty-Rogers
Jesus: Daniel Rowan
Judas: Michael Hunsaker
Pontius Pilate: Glenn Seven Allen
King Herod: BJ Cleveland
Annas: Brian Golub
Caiafas: Greg Dulcie
Simon: Craig Glen Foster
Peter: James Chandler
Apostles: Matt Andersen, Patrick Clanton, Winston Daniels, Sergio Antonio Garcia, Domanick Hubbard, Vinnie Mahal, Calvin Scott Roberts, Rashaun Sibley, Jacob Rivera-Sanchez
Female Chorus: Alexandra Cassens, Cristina Castro, Caroline Ellis, Alyssa Gardner, Taylor Quick, Olivia Sharber, Stefanie Tovar
Reviewed Performance: 9/10/2016
Reviewed by LK Fletcher, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
To this opera singer, Jesus Christ Superstar felt like a grand opera. The large scale set featuring imposing levels of grey granite and massive moving walls, (Designed by Adam Koch) the impressive power vocals from the principals and the choral presence and live orchestra (Music Director James Cunningham) validate this classic rock opera production as a musical tour de force. Casa Manana’s elaborate production moves swiftly, has loads of both heart and soul and it contains passion equal to its billing as “the greatest story ever told.”
Unlike its 1971 original production which was a relatively static production in oratorio style, Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS) has evolved in 45 years. Director and Choreographer Josh Rhodes continually shifts stage pictures, levels and focal points to create a visually appealing and changing tableau on the stage. The ensemble has an infusion of movement and choreography that is not typically seen in other productions and it works well. It is powerful to see the ensemble as they move and sing not only on the stage but in the aisles. It is absolutely moving to see Jesus standing in front of the stage, in the house, with his back to the audience.
The choreography covered a wide range of difficulty and the ensemble performed well with varying degrees of polish. Act One dance numbers were less crisp than Act Two but the same would be said of the orchestra which struggled at times to create a rhythmically cohesive ensemble through the challenging score.
There was a wonderful energy and movement throughout the show which was design driven by Mr. Rhodes. The production was immensely appealing visibly although there were some sight lines that were blocked by the massive walls and placing actors all the way down stage. The stage is massive and appears wider than it is deep so certainly this is a challenge.
The lighting design by Samuel Rushen was dark and dramatic. There was a wide range of focal spots, special effects and DJ party lighting. The show from the back center where I sat, was incredibly appealing visually, but the lighting was low enough I seldom saw faces. The show was so beautifully staged and with a wonderful physicality throughout the cast so this is not a detriment, but it would be nice to brighten up the actors faces.
Costume Designer Tammy Spencer created beautiful period pieces for the cast with two notably dramatic exceptions. Mary Magdalene in Act One wearing a vivid red sparkly evening gown and the grand finale with Judas in a glittery game show glam tuxedo. To put this in context, Mary Magdalene, played by the very capable and charismatic Jackie Burns, and Judas, played by a very capable Michael Hunsaker, are pivotal to Tim Rice’s tale in this power triangle between Mary, Judas and Jesus.
Mary Magdalene is set aside not only visually with her vibrant dress but also with her vocal choices. The original style elements of the musical score work as well in 2016 as they did in 1971. It is interesting that the wave at our current culture would be the choice of a red evening gown and a very contemporary stylized version of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”. Jackie Burns brought the house down when she sang. Ms. Burns is a beautiful woman and an attentive and engaging Mary Magdalene. It was a wonderful, contemplative performance with a beautiful rich sound. The very folksy original version of the song was ornamented throughout with Beyoncé melismas-. I really can appreciate that musically on American Idol, especially when done as artistically as Ms. Burns performed, but it was incongruous in this setting to me. It’s entirely possible that I am a purist.
Speaking of pure- there was an abundance of beautiful, pure singing. Daniel Rowan as Jesus, sang a beautiful lyric tenor throughout the evening. Mr. Rowan has no fear of heights- vocally or suspended from the ceiling of the theater- and he soared through the production. Daniel Rowan exudes charisma, warmth and a subtle stage presence. His gentle demeanor was rocked (pun intended) on two occasions where Jesus actually pushed his disciples around. Not what I would have expected from Jesus of Nazareth but those disciples can be a handful. Mr. Rowan was very much the star and is to be commended for bringing a great deal of honor and thoughtful attention to what must be the most difficult of roles to perform.
The narrative of Tim Rice about Jesus's last days on earth puts Judas Iscariot at the heart of the story: and it makes Judas the figure through whom we question, not Jesus Christ himself. Michael Hunsaker, who is the other main character in Superstar as Judas-the troubled disciple destined to betray Jesus is not portrayed as a villain. He is rather likable, and it is easy to feel sorry for him. He sings amazingly well, but it is his face full of weary intelligence that keeps the heart of the show pure as Mr. Hunsaker rides the emotional roller coaster of Judas. He travels through pride and greed to betrayal and remorse with a powerhouse tenor that narrates much of the show. Jesus Christ Superstar is a work about disbelief, at least as much as faith and the burden of proof is upon Judas.
There were many outstanding musical moments in JCS. The Ensemble in “Hosanna” as a vocal ensemble worked incredibly well together. James Chandler as Peter, sang Peter’s Denial convincingly and BJ Cleveland as King Herod in “King Herod’s Song” shredded it- the audience was hooting and rolling in the aisles with his high octane, acerbic performance.
There were two notable dramatic voices in JCS, Character actor Greg Dulcie as Caiaphas created tremors in Fort Worth with his larger than life vocals and powerful presence. This voice actor has a wonderful dramatic and vocal range that really cemented Caiaphas as the antagonist to the story.
Glenn Seven Allen as Pontius Pilate has a brilliant, sparkling tenor that stands apart from an evening of exceptional singing. Mr. Allen has a stellar vocal instrument, and a sophisticated and elegant approach to the music and the character. Pilate’s self-righteous, nobility works when executed at the level of artistry that Mr. Allen possesses.
High emotions prevail as the Crucifixion is marvelously staged giving the opera a tragic conclusion. This production is respectful to religion as its artistic choices emphasize the “superstar” cult of personality rather than a religious text. It is done with exquisite taste and loads of heart. Daniel Rowan and Michael Hunsaker sing their hearts out.
Jesus Christ Superstar is a musical spectacle, infused with energy and excellence. Enjoy the show- I did.
Casa Manaña, 3101 W. Lancaster Ave. Fort Worth, TX 76107
Through September 18, 2016
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