‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

The national touring company of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The iconic rock opera, written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, graced the stage at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre as part of the 50th anniversary National Tour. “Jesus Christ Superstar” tells the story of Jesus Christ during the last seven days of his life. It doesn’t preach, it doesn’t push beliefs on it’s audience, it is a tale of the man. 

Timothy Sheader directs a unique production. Part interpretive dance, part rock concert. It isn’t for everyone, but I found it exciting, fresh, and contemporary. Taking material from the 70’s and mounting it for audiences that may never have been exposed to the material before. It is a 90 minute experience that I believe is what Rice and Lloyd Webber set out to create when they penned this material. 

“Jesus Christ Superstar” was never supposed to be a book musical. It was a concept album, telling the story through a rock and roll score. This production does just that, and seeing it live, will definitely make you see that this isn’t an ordinary staging. It’s not supposed to be an ordinary musical. 

Where the production falls a little flat is in some of the vocal prowess. Singing against tempo, breathing in strange phrases, and lagging with the band, seems to be a theme in this show. While not totally terrible, as a musician, I cringed hearing the singers delay, wondering if they were going to catch up. They always did, in-case you were wondering. The orchestra, a full band that includes all members of the various instrument families, delivers Lloyd Webber’s score with power, force, and brilliance. There are some artistic liberties taken, especially with a random screechy tenor saxophone solo, but after thinking about it for a while, I realized that it complemented the activity happening on stage, and I found it perfect.

Costumes are modernized in this production, including tank tops, baggy sweatpants, sneakers, zip up hoodies,  and lots of tattoos. This style reminded me of the “Jesus Christ Superstar LIVE” on NBC a few years ago. I really liked it.

James Delisco Beeks plays Judas, and let me tell you, his performance must cause him great exhaustion at the end of the night. He is a rock star, and he does well singing the demanding parts. “Heaven On Their Minds” needs to be amazing because it sets us up for the rest of the story. Delisco Beeks takes a few minutes to warm up, but once he gets going, he is a powerhouse. 

Jenna Rubaii sings her heart out as Mary Magdalene, and is an audience favorite. Her performance of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” (one of my favorite songs in the show) is beautiful, and she graces the notes with ease. Sadly, Mary’s part is not huge in the show, and I would have loved to see more of her. 

Somewhere in the last 50 years, it was decided that King Herod had to be portrayed as a flamboyant drag performer. I have seen this in at least three productions out of the last five I have attended. While I don’t hate it, it surely takes away from new interpretations as this seems to be the new normal. In any case, Paul Louis Lessard gets the laughs and makes quite the spectacle as Herod in this production. A flashy gold outfit, a machete, boots, it’s very entertaining. He sings the iconic “King Herod’s Song” to a tee. An audience favorite.

Finally, Aaron LaVigne plays Jesus. I always judge a production’s Jesus by how well they sing my all time favorite song in the show “Gethsemane.” Playing his own guitar accompaniment, and laying all the cards out on the table, LaVigne makes this song his own, including the Ted Neely-esk screeches, and I loved every single stinking second of it. 

This production chooses to exclude the intermission, which is fantastic. 90 minutes. Glitter. You can’t go wrong!

“Jesus Christ Superstar” runs until February 16, 2020 and is presented at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. For more information, click here.

Top 10 Shows of 2018

As the year comes to a close, Buffalo Theatre Guide is pleased to announce the TOP 10 Shows of 2018, based on page views! These shows were reviewed by a Buffalo Theatre Guide writer, and the review was shared via social media. These shows will be honored with a certificate which will be mailed to the theatre in the new year. Congratulations to all the winners this year!

Honorable Mentions:

15: “Jesus Christ Superstar” – American Repertory Theatre Of WNY

Review is here.

14. “Annie” – Lancaster Opera House

Review is here.

13. “Once” – MusicalFare Theatre

Review is here.

Steven Copps and Renee Landrigan in ‘Once’ at MusicalFare Theatre.

12. “Alice in Wonderland” – Aurora Players

Review is here.

The Cast of “Alice In Wonderland” at Aurora Players. Photo by Dori Shear-McGowan.

11. “Mamma Mia!” Kavinoky Theatre

Review is here.

TOP 10 Shows of 2018

10: “Big Fish” – Second Generation Theatre Company

Review is here. 

9. “Mary Poppins” – Theatre In The Mist

Review is here.

 

8. “All My Sons” – Niagara Regional Theatre Guild

Review is here.

The cast of “All My Sons” by Niagara Regional Theatre Guild.

 

7.  “Spring Awakening” – MusicalFare Theatre

Review is here.

The cast of MusicalFare’s ‘Spring Awakening.’ Photo by Chris Cavanagh.

6. “Sive” –  Irish Classical Theatre

Review is here. 

Josephine Hogan and Kiana Duggan-Haas in “Sive” at Irish Classical Theatre.

5.  “The Wizard of Oz” – Rocking Horse Productions

Review is here.

4.  “And Then There Were None” at Aurora Players

Review is here.

The cast of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” at Aurora Players. Photo by Dori Shear-McGowan.

3.  “Oliver!” at Lancaster Opera House

Review is here.

2.   Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” at Lockport Palace Theatre

Review is here.

The cast of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” at Lockport Palace Theatre.

 

1. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street –  Kavinoky Theatre

Review is here.

Loraine O’Donnell and Matt Witten in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street” at Kavinoky Theatre.

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.