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REVIEW: Jesus Christ Superstar Dazzles (Ordway)

Simon Zealotes (Terance Reddick) leads the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar in his eponymous song. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Jesus Christ Superstar began as a concept album in 1970, soon giving rise to numerous ad hoc church performances throughout Britain and the United States.  News of the album spread quickly by radio and word of mouth, bringing worldwide recognition to lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.  In 1971, the stage version debuted as a rock opera on Broadway and it has been performed by both touring groups and local theatres ever since. For the Ordway’s production, director and choreographer James A. Rocco and musical director Andrew Bourgoin provide a crowd-pleasing production of Superstar with fantastic singers and dazzling choreography.  Out of the roughly dozen performances of Superstar that I’ve seen over the years, the Ordway’s production is one of the best.

Mary Magdalene (Lauren Villegas) comforts a weary Jesus (Jesse Nager). Photo by Rich Ryan.

Superstar tells the story of Jesus Christ and his infamous disciple Judas in the week leading up to the crucifixion.  Although conservative Christian groups have blasted Superstar as being disrespectful, it is a faithful telling of the events of the last few days of Jesus’ time in Jerusalem.  In many ways, Judas is the central and most complicated character as the rock opera focuses on his reasons for betraying Jesus. Jesus is a close second, however, and is the character who brings the show to its end.

As Jesus, Jesse Nager showcases a powerful singing voice and that dazzles in the many high tenor notes in his songs.  As Judas, Randy Schmeling also displays a powerful high tenor; it’s almost a sing-off competition between the two when they interact.  Nager’s moving performance captures a Jesus who is disappointed with his followers, who do not sacrifice as much for him as he does for them.  He finds solace with Mary Magdalene who appears to be the only one who places his needs above hers.  Lauren Villegas as Mary nearly brings down the house with her powerful performance of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”

Erin Schwab (center) and the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Another talent standout is Terrace Reddick as Simon. The high-energy choreography by Reddick and the cast on the song “Simon Zealotes” is incredible, breathtaking, and reminiscent of the high-power dance scene in the Ted Neely film version of Superstar.  Dieter Bierbrauer is in fine singing form as Pontius Pilate.  Erin Schwab, in the gender-bender role of King Herod, brings an almost vaudevillean touch to the production with her hilarious rendition of “King Herod’s Song”.  The large supporting cast helps keep the production at a high level of performance with both their singing and dancing.  The children’s chorus for the song “Superstar” is also a great touch.

Paul Whitaker’s set and lighting design works well together with a basic set of steps and parallel light beams on the top level to change the scenes; drapes of fabric provide much of the physical change.  The scene design nicely incorporates an apron wrapping around the large orchestra pit, bringing Nager and Schmeling closer to the audience for many of their solos, as well as a prominent and wonderfully lit painted backdrop.  Bourgoin’s orchestra blended in well with singers and choreography.

The content of the show may seem dated at times, but previous productions that I have seen that have tried to update the show from its hippy past have simply not worked.  Superstar was born in and resonates with the late 1960s and early 1970s, and is best told with the trappings of this period.  The Ordway’s energetic production richly deserved the audience’s resounding standing ovation on opening night.

Jesse Nager as Jesus (center) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs through July 30 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN.

Bev Wolfe