JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (Bristol Riverside Theatre): In a little river town a great but shopworn rock opera is reborn


I went in to the show a doubting Thomas, not all that interested in a re-tread musical, even a great one that’s made the rounds for almost fifty years. And while Bristol Riverside Theatre (BRT) is a solid regional theater, it’s not Broadway.  But my friend wanted to see it, so I went. My expectations were modest, to say the least.  What do I think now, having seen it?  Broadway boffins and Philly theater insiders should rent busses and make a pilgrimage to the little town of Bristol, a half hour’s ride north of Center City, is what I think.

Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Sir Tim Rice’s JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR started out in 1970 as a record album (which I have). In the beginning it wasn’t a theatrical production. So it never had a book, even when it went to Broadway. No-talk turned out to be a big plus, for at heart it’s an arena show, a platform for operatic and pop voices.

Roman Tatarowicz’s brilliant, soaring set overtakes BRT’s stage. An enormous stairway stretches across the width of the stage and soars up 25 feet. The entire show is performed on this remarkably versatile white-grey staircase that also serves as a screen for John Hoey‘s free-spirited projections. Joe Doran’s very new, eye-popping lighting design bonds with the set and takes everything to new heights.  The orchestra, mostly hidden way up by the top of the stairs, kicks in with the overture, and the opening signature electric guitar riff, played by Neil Nemetz, does for SUPERSTAR what the opening clarinet glissando did for Rhapsody in Blue.

Bristol Riverside Jesus Christ Superstar theatre review

Patrick Dunn as Jesus with the cast in Bristol Riverside Theatre’s JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. Photo by Mark Garvin

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is built on skepticism. Judas Iscariot, at the heart of the story, is a modern man who wants answers and reassurance. Adam Kemmerer brings intensity to his torn and worried Judas: Jesus is dangerous and he wants to “strip away the myth from the man.” The activist apostles all worry. Peter (Derrick Cobey) is conflicted. And Patrick H. Dun, an unexpected Jesus in blue jeans with short, curly hair, is conflicted too. They’re all afraid. Ciji Prosser‘s Mary Magdalene is a soothing presence. The fine renditions of familiar songs, including her exquisite “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” are fresh and vital.  No one is wearing sandals and Nazarene robes. And, although there are nods to the 70s, no one is resurrecting hippies and that era either. It’s a new take.

Scenes run the gamut from spare and sensitive to loud, outrageous spectacle, sometimes juxtaposed in a single number. Patrick H. Dunn’s Jesus, sometimes restrained, sometimes super dramatic and irresistible, cuts loose in his Gethsemane aria, reaching and sustaining unreachable notes. There’s so much richness here: The resourceful principals and indefatigable ensemble, the ramped up drama; the wonderful interplay of the contrasting voices of Steve Steiner and Robert Farrugia as priests Caiaphas and Annas; Darren Ritchie’s smooth Pilate, Danny Rutigliano’s vignette as a gold-jacketed dancing Herod in Vegas; Stephen Casey’s snappy frenetic choreography, Linda B. Stockton’s incredible array of au courant costumes, and the outstanding work of the orchestra.

This brash, artful retake on SUPERSTAR, directed by Keith Baker, starts out gangbusters and never lets up. And as a suffering Savior finally drags himself up through disinterested dancing glitterati, we’ve arrived at the dramatic nexus of faith, doubt, and showbiz.  BRT doesn’t just lend SUPERSTAR a breath of fresh air, it gives this activist Passion Play a new life.

[Bristol Riverside Theatre, Radcliffe St., Bristol, PA] March 21-April 16  brtstage.org

Ensemble: Jason Taylor Armstrong, Daniel Bontempo, Elena Camp, John DiFerdinando, Caleb Funk, Maggie Griffin-Smith, Megan Helen Jones, Lauren Krigel, Christopher McHugh, Caitlin Ort, William Pazdziora,  Miriam Grace Payne, Christopher J. Perugini, Dominick Sannelli, Keith L. Watford

 

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About the author

Kathryn Osenlund, theater and film junkie, is a former National Critics Institute fellow, NEA fellow in Arts Journalism, and member of the American Theater Critics Assn Steinberg and Osborn playwriting awards committee. A Barrymore Award nominator and professor emeritus in communications and theater, Kathryn also writes for NY-based CurtainUp.com. On twitter @theatrendorphin.