By Jordan Wright
Signature Theatre’s artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, has been upping the ante with big, bold Broadway shows. His latest mega production is Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hyper hit Jesus Christ Superstar. Casting some madly impressive voices in this blockbuster rock musical signals Schaeffer’s emphasis on the compelling music and lyrics, and drawing the theatre-goer’s attention to the story’s similarities to current culture.
And that’s a good thing, because director Joe Calarco strips away all semblance of a period piece. Early versions, you may recall, stage it in biblical times. But you’ll see none of that sentimentality here with Luciana Stecconi’s stripped-bare set of nine movable white platforms reconfigured throughout to represent the table at The Last Supper, or put to use as a soapbox for Jesus or Pontius Pilate to utter proclamations to their indecisive followers.
Again attention is focused on the music directed by conductor William Yanesh, and not predominantly on costumes by Frank Labovitz who gives us monochromatic teen streetwear for Jesus’ apostles, sharkskin suits for Pontius Pilate, and sequined satin gospel dresses for the Soul Sisters. No flowing robes here. And an odd choice of using Bibles as props, neglects the tiny detail that they hadn’t been written yet. I’ll take it as a reference to “Bible-toting” fanatics and give it a pass.
Look instead to Nicholas Edwards (as Jesus of Nazareth) who reprises the role made famous by actor Ted Neely. Edwards is spellbinding, delivering a viscerally transformative performance that is a game changer for this role. With his remarkable voice and ripped body, he exudes both passion and raw sexuality. Another powerhouse performance comes from the very versatile Bobby Smith who plays Jesus’ evil nemesis Pontius Pilate as effortlessly as I’ve seen him play comedy. Lean into his delivery of “Trial Before Pilate” to witness his nuanced performance.
Natascia Diaz as Mary Magdalene also offers a different interpretation of her role – one very different from the fiery female roles we’re accustomed to seeing her play. Her strong voice seems tamer and often aimless with a surfeit of trills and superfluous flourishes in the ballads. Though her believability in her affection for and defense of Jesus is where she shines.
Karma Camp’s choreography, seamlessly weaving 18 performers through complicated dance and fight scenes, is impressive. Zachary G. Borovay uses video projections of Hitler and the Nazis, 9-11, Syria and an assortment of social extremists to background the number “The Crucifixion”, which effectively reveals the eerie resemblance between ancient times and the racial violence and religious terrorism in modern society.
As a side note, I couldn’t help but wonder if my seat, which was close to the stage, was the reason the singers seemed to frequently be drowned out by the seven-piece orchestra. I hope it was merely the sound levels, which may be straightened out by now. In any case I’d choose the upper level for this show since watching the actors at waist level is not the best perspective.
Through July 2nd at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, 22206. For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.