Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Jesus Christ Superstar
Seriously, that's all they had left, the night I attended. The producer says Stray Dog Theater has already sold out the regular seating for the entire run of this Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, which debuted on Broadway in 1971. And, in fact, such sellouts are becoming the norm for Stray Dog's most lavish shows. Those far left and right seats will reportedly open up when the waiting list gets long (but without any discount in the general admission price). So if you already have tickets and can show up in plenty of time for full-view seating, consider yourself lucky.
But even if you don't, you can still see quite wellI got their 30 minutes early and was second-row (audience) right, with a sweeping staircase looming up before me (a space or two from "limited-view seating," to be honest). And it was still a nice vantage point for a big Follies-style tribute by director Justin Been and choreographer Mike Hodges, and also for a few of the important solo numbers, which are surprisingly delivered on this far side of the stairs. Little of consequence ever seems to happen "up-center" in this version, with the haunting crucifixion scene placed high up on stage right.
Wherever you are in the theater, songs pour out of this show's Jesus (Omega Jones) like molten gold, and his solitary, expertly sung torment in act two, in the garden at Gethsemane, was interrupted by a burst of applause (though perhaps it was also for his striking mystical nature on stage) at the performance I attended. Phil Leveling has a similarly outstanding grasp of the very different hard-rock idiom in the co-starring role of Judas, which he fills with a jagged kind of worldly righteousness. But the real fun comes when Lavonne Byers (as Pilate) or Gerry Love (as Herod) take the stage, full of swagger and sneers, before things get very dark indeed. And, as is the case when director Been is running the show, even the 14-member chorus seems forged into one single, powerful character.
Heather Matthews takes a lowly approach to the role of Mary Magdalene, creeping like a mouse into "I Don't Know How to Love Him" before we've even caught on that she's about to deliver one of the great modern ballads, and Ms. Matthews fully rises to the occasion. Everything about the show seems fresh and new, which is both a blessing and a curse as things move along: joy comes on new paths, but so does sorrow, unexpectedly powerful.
John Hey is a towering, malevolent (but nuanced with doubt) figure as Caiaphas; he and many of the cast members sport make-up that seems to have been inspired by the recent movie Mad Max: Fury Road, adding nicely to the dark futurism of the piece, along with smart, innovative costumes by Eileen Engel. And there's excellent singing and dancing from everyone under the musical direction of Jennifer Buchheit, with special mention going to Riley Dunn for his remarkable performance as Simon Zealotes.
Director Been stands now as a master of musical terror, when you take into account this show's minute or so of mad laughter and wailing, in a full blackout, while Jesus dieslikewise, with Mr. Been's staging of Sweeney Todd last year, or 2014's Cabaret at Stray Dog Theatreeach staggering in its own dark and brooding way. There are humorous new touches in this Superstar, to be sure, with Mr. Love as Herod ending his tirade against the "King of the Jews" by snarling "fake news!" And though it's darker than any Shakespearean tragedy you'll see this year, this Superstar still manages to burn bright with tunefulness, as well as passion and mercy.
Through April 28, 2018, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.