Theatre in Review

Of the many Andrew Lloyd Webber hits, Jesus Christ Superstar has always been a personal favorite of mine. It rocks, it moves and…it’s back. After a lengthy absence, the award-winning musical has returned to the Chicago area, this time with a bit of a twist as, unlike past productions, the show features an all African American cast. This, opposed to the nearly all white cast complete with a black Judas that we are accustomed to seeing. And, the tremendously gifted cast works so very well in this revival piece. The change is bold and should be commended. And the execution is nearly flawless. 

With one of the greatest rock operas of all time currently finding its temporary home at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre, we know by the end of the production’s first number, “Heaven on Their Minds”, that Mykal Kilgore, who takes on the demanding role of “Judas”, is a special talent. We also get an idea within the next few numbers (“What’s the Buzz?”, “Strange Thing, Mystifying” and “Everything’s Alright”) how deep the talent pool goes in this one-of-a-kind production.  

Reliving the last days of Jesus Christ leading up to the crucifixion, the timeless musical, which premiered on Broadway on October 12th, 1971, is set to the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Tim Rice, in what began as a rock opera concept album by the two in 1970. Since, it has been one of the most successful musicals of all time gathering a loyal fan-base from all over the world. In Jesus Christ Superstar, we visit Jesus, accompanied by his disciples and Mary Magdalene, as he performs miracles and brings hope to the world while claiming he is the son of God, much to the chagrin of the Pharisees and scribes who see him as a threat to their teachings – a threat they would like removed so much they ask the Romans for help.

In Paramount’s current production of Jesus Christ Superstar, a fifteen-piece orchestra paves the way for the talented performers who leave their mark in one number after another. Kilgore goes on to navigate through each song with skilled precision and sings with amazing depth. And while Kilgore impresses more and more as the show progresses by staying true (and then some) to the “Judas” that both Murray Head and Carl Anderson made famous, Felicia Boswell is also quick to excite the audience with her moving interpretation of Mary Magdalene, particularly in the popular “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. Beautiful, graceful and vocally dynamic, Boswell brings a gentle warmth to the role, wonderfully capturing the love that Mary had for Jesus. Throughout the production, remarkable performances are abundant with Rufus Bonds Jr. taking the reins in a very commanding depiction of Pontius Pilate, so well delivering the message of his conflict to have Jesus crucified at the request of the mob that is influenced by the religious law makers or to set him free since no Roman law has been broken. Lorenzo Rush Jr. also leaves a strong presence as the baritone-wielding Caiaphas who leads the charge against Jesus, fearing that he will revolutionize Jewish law. 

Jesus of Nazareth is commendably played Evan Tyrone Martin. Martin aptly captures the virtue and charisma needed for the role of and is convincing while conveying just how tiring it can be to be the son of God. Martin’s voice is strong and he has little trouble carrying the many challenging melodies that come with playing Jesus, though the patented screams that both Ted Neeley (film version) and Ian Gillan (concept album) had incorporated into the role were absent, leaving a couple prime crescendo moments to the wayside. Still, Martin holds his own, even getting a much-deserved extended applause after his riveting performance of “Gethsemane”, a powerful number where Jesus questions why it is that he must die. 

The show’s ensemble is nothing short of amazing, the actors changing back and forth from disciples, to Pharisees to lepers to soldiers ever so efficiently. At one point, Mark J.P. Hood breaks rank from the ensemble as Simon and superbly performs one of the show’s highlight numbers “Simon Zealotes”, where he praises Jesus and urges him to build an army to fight the powers of Rome. Another crowd-pleasing moment (among the countless others) occurs when Jesus is brought forth to Herod (Avionce Hoyles) in a glittery display that dazzles in the somewhat jazzy “Herod’s Song”. Kudos to Hoyles who thrusts the role of Herod into another stratosphere.     

Paramount’s Jesus Christ Superstar is a fascinating production that entertains nonstop from its opening overture to its near-finale number “Superstar”. Featuring a wealth of acting and singing talent and a rockin’ orchestra that does the soundtrack right, this could possibly be one of the most polished, expressive and enjoyable musicals to come our way in some time.  

Superb. This beautiful production is super recommended.

Magnificently directed and choreographed by Ron Kellum with music direction by Tom Vendafreddo, Jesus Christ Superstar is being performed at Paramount Theatre through May 28th. For tickets and/or more show information click here.       

 

Published in Theatre in Review

This excellent stage production of the 2013 musical Far from Heaven was based on Todd Haynes‘ 2002 motion picture of the same name. 

 

Far from Heaven is set in 1957 Hartford, Connecticut, well before the advent of the sexual revolution. Cathy Whitaker played by Summer Naomi Smart discovers that her handsome, successful businessman husband Frank is having affairs - with other men! Frank was played very well and very selfishly - if not compassionately - towards his wife whose world is crushed unexpectedly by actor Brandon Springman. 

 

After a time of trying to convert her husband back to heterosexuality by a psychologist, Cathy and her husband realize the emptiness and futility of their sexless and coldly critical relationship continuing just for the sake of the children.

 

Cathy's new gardener and widowed single father of a ten-year-old daughter, Raymond Deagan (Evan Tyrone Martin), becomes her friend and the scandal of her own life in spite of their necessarily platonic enjoyment of each other's company.

 

Evan Tyrone Martin has a wonderful rich smooth voice, arguably the best in the show and a nice natural quality to his acting. Summer Naomi Smart is stunning to look at as the real life "Stepford Wife" whose world comes crashing down when she tries to surprise visit her husband on a night he is "working late again" and gets the shock of her life when she finds him in the office in the arms of another man.

 

I've seen Ms. Smart in many musical comedies but this is the first time I have seen her really let loose in a dark way, especially in the scene when she confronts her husband about his homosexual affairs and lets out a terrifying and mournful wail that truly came from deep inside her character’s psyche. It was nice to see her tackle then take the reigns on this multi-dimensional role.  

 

Grant Saban‘s set seemed too much like a doll house to me, very one dimensional in color and shapes but perhaps that was intentional in terms of the subtext of the repressive 1950's. However, William Morey‘s gorgeous period costumes, which reminded me of a cross between Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore's beautifully tailored and colorfully designed outfits in their respective series, brought the whole set to life.

 

Bri Sudia‘s performance is rich and dynamic as Cathy’s best friend Eleanor, who is very sympathetic about the sexless and lovlessness of Cathy's picture perfect marriage yet deserts her best friend over the issue of an interracial friendship. All of the supporting characters and girlfriends of Cathy Whitaker in this production do an excellent job in their respective roles and deliver as many ironic laughs as possible with subject matter that really is just a lot of sad statements about the wasted loves of many marriages in the fifties - marriages, which were built on lies and social and financial convenience rather than genuine love and real sexual attraction. 

 

Turning this subject matter into a musical may have made it more fun and palatable, but also detracted from the seriousness and tragedy of a woman who has given birth to two children and ends up totally alone, a single mother in the fifties, because of years and years of lies from a man who was supposed to be her best friend and true love. Yet the accompaniment of a great live orchestra really brings this sometimes somber score to life when needed. 

 

Finely directed by Chuck Larkin, Porchlight Musical Theatre's Far from Heaven is playing at Stage 773 through March 13th. For more show information on this absorbing and well-pieced-together production, visit www.prochlightmusictheatre.org.  

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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