Jesus Christ Superstar
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Rob Winn Anderson
Starring Benjamin van Diepen and Shea Rafferty
Winter Garden, FL
I think they almost nailed this one. “Superstar” is one of the more difficult musicals to get right. While the songs are solid and the music not particularly difficult, giving the cast useful on-stage tasks can be surprisingly tough. You know the bones of the story: Jesus of Nazareth (van Diepen) arrives in Jerusalem for the last time. He’s made a name for himself preaching, healing and raising from the dead, all standard stuff for middle eastern deities of the day. His best friend and closest associate Judas Iscariot (Rafferty) warns him to tone it down lest he get the Romans on his tail but what sort of story would that be? There’s always been controversy about the text of this show and today was no different. Preshow a group of older church women sat behind me and fretted over just how “Biblical” this show was, and would it damage their faith? I have sad news for them: this is Musical Theater, and not really a place to seek religious certainty.
What you will find here is musical certainty. While a rough edge or two popped up, this production looked and sounded great. Rafferty does most of the musical heavy lifting but Diepen needs to supply all the high notes. He hits them and holds them well but it was scary to watch. Rafferty leads or solos most of the good songs (Superstar, Damned for All Time) leaving Mary Magdelene (Natalie McKnight Palmer) with her outstanding “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Other notables include Mark Wright-Ahearn as Caiaphas leading “This Jesus Must Die” and Bret McMahon with Pontius Pilate’s “Trial by Pilate”. Caiaphas and Annas (Josh Kimbal) were suitably slimy, and director Anderson introduces a new character named “The Guitarist” (Greg Pakstis). He appears three times, each when Judas must make a decision, and plays a few rocking bars of 1970’s hard rock to help clear his mind. My best guess is he’s representing either Jehovah or some inner demon of Judas’s. Only one weak spot here: King Herod (Kit Cleo) couldn’t sell “King Herod’s Song”. That number just felt weak.
A brick wall and a movable scrim box made a flexible and mobile set for the cast to work on. A mix of modern and period looks made the time period ambiguous, and there was a surreal moment when the action freezes and a WW2 air raid siren froze the action. No idea why. I admit I have very high standards for this show; I’ve heard the original album and seem the movie a dozen times, and seen at least five other productions. This is arguably the best: the music works, the overall cast is strong, and the production always finds something interesting happening on stage. I recommend it, but don’t expect a bible study. This is a hard rock musical, and one of the best.
For more information on The Garden Theatre, please visit www.gardentheatre.org