The Gallery Players is proving itself to be a company with the courage to take risks with their programming. With their current offering, Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1970 landmark rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Gallery Players refuses to succumb to traditional theatre programming.
Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar is said to have paved the way for "rock operas" in the musical theatre canon. It was one of the first instances in which every line of dialogue/lyric was sung in rock music styling. Director Katie Jo Icenhower brings a new vision to the play, imagining a sandy Jerusalem as a metallic, spare playground of platforms and stairs which are used creatively in the staging.
The production opened Icenhower's enormous set, complete with enough stairs, catwalks, and a giant metal crucifix to leave very little space on the small stage. The orchestra blared the overture through the loudspeakers as a massive ensemble staggered out of the wings to listen to Jesus (a youthful Allan Wiley) speak silent sermons while Judas (Willy Fisher) looked on unamused.
The opening line of "Heaven on their Minds" played, and Fisher began Judas's rocking opening number flawlessly. At the next verse Webber wrote soaring high notes (emphasis on the "rock" in "rock opera") that Fisher hit, but with some strain. I applaud his breath support for allowing him not to crack on those!
While some of the leads struggled with hitting Weber’s notes, their confidence and good acting made us realize that Weber indeed can be ruthless towards his singers. Patti Lupone, in an interview, said that performing the role of the Argentinian First Lady Eva Peron brought upon great vocal strain; she even a popped blood vessel! Weber’s scores are tough ones.
The cast delivered a surprisingly good overall sound in the ensemble numbers. And though the stage seemed a bit too small for the whole cast (no fault of the production team or the ensemble), the collective sound was clear and powerful. Josie Bodle, whom I have had the pleasure of seeing in many North Carolina Theatre productions, played Mary Magdalene with ease and professionalism, shining especially brightly in an Act II duet with Peter (Chip Barnette). The evil Caiaphas and his cronies were stand outs, too, commanding defiant stage presence and delivering their scheming songs with great balance between singing and patter-style vocals. Alan Tutterow's Pilate was captivating and empathetic while being sinister – I would love to see him play the villain in a production of Charles Strouse's It's A Bird! It's A Plane! It's Superman! Allan Wiley's Jesus was likeable. The role is a major challenge for any actor who decides to tackle it, and he does so with emotional empathy while managing the difficult task of showing the real human struggle that this superstar faces in his final days.
Elizabeth Kornstadt's excellent lighting was surprisingly top-notch, using clever color schemes to mark the day-to-day transitions in such a limited space and with so many people on the stage to light.
Marilyn Fox's orchestra played their parts in time and with all the right notes, but the unfortunate microphone placement was clearly too close, allowing for spotlighting and over-amplification of individual instruments as opposed to projecting a more unified orchestral sound through the house speakers.
My only criticism of the production is that I wished there had been more focus given to Judas' storyline. Webber does a brilliant (if, at the times, controversial) job of giving Judas three-dimensions with songs that describe his struggle and pain towards betraying his friend. The production did a wonderful job focusing on Jesus' struggle but might have benefited from comparable attention to Judas, although this is a tough thing to do with such a challenging piece, wherein the many story elements make it hard to focus on everything.
Gallery Players has taken a risk in producing this controversial work, and will no doubt be successful in the rest of its run. The production is extremely accessible to all audiences, open-minded, vocally powerful, and creative in its staging and tech elements. Gallery has set the bar high for other community theatres in the area with this production, I am eager to know what will be programmed next year.
The production continues through Sunday, March 1. For more details on this production, please see the sidebar.