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Jesus Christ Superstar: Enduring Rock Opera Retains Ageless Truths

Erin P. Doherty
By Erin P. Doherty
Posted on Jul 25,2018
Filed Under Entertainment , Local Style,
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Photo by Matt Liptak
Janae Witcher (Ensemble), Tracey Lucas (Ensemble), Cody Boehm (Simon Zealotes), Michael Gale (Peter), Rishabh Bajekal (Jesus of Nazareth), Thea Simpson (Mary Magdalene), Hilary Adams (Ensemble), Peter Curtin (Ensemble), Cassie Truchess (Ensemble)

ALEXANDRIA, VA. - The thought of Jesus Christ Superstar being modernized gave me pause. Why? Perhaps I am conditioned to want to see hippies dancing in the desert in primitive clothing, including the stereotypical-looking Jesus (Ted Neeley)—robed and barefoot. Instead, Ryaan Farhadi (Caiaphas) sports a red power tie, and is flanked by women (Emmy Kampe and Amy Lapthorne) filling traditionally male roles, who wear severe haircuts and power suits (Robin Worthington and Ambler Johnson). Cody Boehm (Simon Zeolotes) and other women excelled as nontraditional Apostles.

The modernization works under Jim Howard's direction at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, because watching Jesus’s story unfold in the electronic age reminds us that, the more technology evolves over centuries, the more human nature remains the same. When he Ensemble sings, “What’s the Buzz?” while making full use of their cell phones, it reinforces the old adage that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  

Rishabh Bajekal (Jesus of Nazareth) and Thea Simpson (Mary Magdalene), in particular did the vocals of this rock opera justice. Simpson’s “Try Not to Get Worried,” “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” and “Could We Start Again Please?” were arguably as expressive and melodic as Yvonne Elliman’s versions in the 1970s. Simpson was reminiscent of other singers of that era, when musicality and dynamic changes trumped incessant loudness. Also, Farhadi’s (Caiphas’s) magnificent bass voice was perfect for his role and strongly resembled that of Bob Bingham (Caiaphas on the original cast recording).

“The Arrest” showed the Ensemble—a mob of former Jesus freaks—suddenly turning against the Jesus they’d followed around like groupies. They went from fawning over Jesus and asking for his autograph, and then the next, they exhibited the Schadenfreude that led Jesus’s followers to call for his crucifixion. “Sheeple” are still capable of being such callous followers.

Sporting an INRI t-shirt and looking like a rocker, Carlos Antonio Ramirez (Judas Iscariot) intensely narrates Jesus Christ Superstar, musicallychronicling Jesus Christ’s final two weeks of life. He sings powerfully and exudes torment and inner conflict, escalating into growls and roars as his solos conclude in “Heaven on Their Minds,” and “Damned for All Time.” Bajekal’s sweet and plaintive expressiveness was an especially striking contrast on “Poor Jerusalem” and “Gethsemane.” He conveys Jesus’s journey during the final 2 weeks of his 30-year ministry, from dreading his impending torture and crucifixion to fully accepting his Father’s will for his purpose in life.

The stark and rather bleak set (Matt Liptak) serves its purposes as well. So often, a pit band is relegated to the area beneath the stage, nearly invisible and clad in black. Here, the musicians were above the stage on scaffolding. This allowed the superb guitar (Ben Young and Danny Santiago) and flute soloists (Mila Weiss and Dana Gardner) to be featured when appropriate, and yet allowed the musicians to remain in the background when there was action onstage.

One thing would have made LTA’s sold-out opening night performance even more enjoyable, and the same could be said for John Legend’s concert performance of Jesus Christ Superstar: If the audience were to hold their applause until the end, then this could allow for greater focus on the storyline and inner turmoil of the characters, including Hans Dettmar (Pontius Pilate), Simpson (Mary Magdalene), and especially Ramirez (Judas) and Bajekal (Jesus).

Andy Izquierdo's (King Herod’s) hilarious and original costume is best left as a surprise: It leaves no question about who the king is! Ken and Patti Crowley pulled off another effective surprise with the lighting, just after Jesus expired.

Enjoy this fresh take on a 1970’s rock opera before it ends on August 11, 2018. Performances are held at the Little Theatre of Alexandria – 600 Wolfe St, Alexandria, VA 22314. Tickets are available either from the box office at 703.683.0496 or at www.thelittletheatre.com.

Photo by Matt Liptak
Rishabh Bajekal (Jesus of Nazareth)
Photo by Matt Liptak
Ensemble





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