John Szablewski Reviews

Theatre Review: ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York

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Christopher Teal as Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York.

I’m going to start this off by saying this, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is my favorite musical. I am very protective of my favorites. When I was in high school, my aunt took me to see the show with Ted Neeley in the title role. It was life changing. I have a few different cast recordings. I play the songs on piano. I’m obsessed.

. . .a well meaning effort by ART.

Started as a concept album by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, “Jesus Christ Superstar” tells the story of Jesus’ last weeks before he was crucified. The score,  which has made it’s mark on pop culture with songs like “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” “What’s The Buzz?”, and “Superstar,” is fantastic.

American Repertory Theater of Western New York takes on the challenge of producing this work for their intimate space. If you have read my reviews in the past, you will know that I have said that there is no such thing as a small musical. Putting on a musical is a monumental task, and when you take on a huge challenge like producing a well known show, you are taking a very large risk. How does ART’s production hold up? Well, it’s a good effort, but doesn’t hit the mark.

Director Matthew LaChiusa has chosen to set his interpretation of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in a utopian time. Cast members wear awesome steam punk attire, and there are sprinklings of electric cables in Elaine Heckler’s costume plot. The concept is entertaining and exciting. At first, I thought, this was something that I have seen before, but it actually is very unique and fits into the music of this rock opera well. In his director note in the program, LaChiusa says that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice knew that this story could take place in anytime, and he is absolutely right.

The four piece band led by Donald Jenzcka, plays the score well. These musicians are able to keep the sound full, and not blow the audience out of the water with volume. In intimate spaces like ART, sometimes the sound balance is off with musicals,  but here the musicians keep the show enjoyable.

The ensemble in this show is absolutely fantastic and the strongest part of the production. They each sing well and bring a welcomed energy to the characters that they are playing. Standouts include Jack Kreuzer and his live guitar playing, Rich Kraemer for his overall stage presence in playing a automatic assault weapon wielding soldier, and Nick Lama steals the show as Pontius Pilate. Actually, Lama is the strongest singer and actor in this show. Lama is only on stage for a few minute spurts at a time, but is easily remembered.

So, now for the difficult part. “Jesus Christ Superstar” has three main leads that should carry this production. Judas, Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. These roles can make or break a production, and this is why casting is so important when presenting a well known work. Starting with the role of Jesus, portrayed by Christopher Teal. Teal starts off the show at a high point, and is believable as Jesus. I had high hopes because I really liked his performance in “What’s The Buzz” and “The Temple.” Teal does well as the calm man, but stays at that level and doesn’t truly engage in the audience to get us to be on his side. I had trouble connecting with him, and sadly, that took me out of the experience, especially when Jesus is sentenced to be crucified. When it comes to Act Two, Teal has trouble sustaining the notes in a few of the songs, especially in “Gethsemane” and speaks most of the lyrics. 

Mary Magdalene, portrayed by Candice Kogut is sweet, and her performances of “Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” are entertaining, but again Kogut doesn’t captivate me as an audience member to be on her side through her struggle. I want to join her and accompany her on her journey to save Jesus from a terrible demise, but I have trouble creating an emotional bond.

Judas Iscariot is portrayed by Anthony Alcocer. Alcocer connects most with the audience, but treads a fine line between showing raw emotion and overacting. His performance of “Heaven On Their Minds” is fantastic, and his singing in “Superstar” is wonderful, but he holds back from hitting the high notes, or sustaining because of the microphone modulation.  Out of the three leads, Alcocer does a very admirable job, but a little more direction could make him the Judas I know he set out to be.

Overall, this production was a miss for me, but it is a well meaning effort by ART. The cast enjoys themselves, and the audience got a show. This production chooses to not hold a curtain call at the end of the performance, and that causes for a bit of an awkward experience for the audience, but it is a great metaphor for the material.

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 15-minute intermission

“Jesus Christ Superstar” runs until March 31, 2018 and is presented at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York. For more information, click here.