SummerFest opened its production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s iconic rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” Thursday night under the stars at Woodland Park. The imposing stage design by Wesley Nelson, who also directed the show, clearly set forth the theme: What if Jesus had done his thing in modern celebrity culture instead of ancient Judaea? Dominated by huge airbrushed photos of Jesus (Darian Sanders) with one-word slogans like “Believe” and “Hosanna,” the set reminded me of an evangelical worship center or a motivational speaker seminar.
Sanders made a sympathetic Jesus and possesses a beautiful, expressive voice. The same could be said for Navji Dixon’s lovely portrayal of Mary Magdalene and for Cole Campbell in the smaller part of Peter. In the crucial, more difficult role of Judas, Sean Sullivan struggled valiantly with the musical and dramatic challenges, but had little voice left for the big title song at the end of the evening. Kody Kiser as Pontius Pilate was also rather monochromatic in his portrayal of the Roman ruler, and Charlie Bissell lacked the necessary gravitas to make Caiaphas a real menace. His henchman Annas was well-sung by Thomas E. Hatton II, and Jacob Karnes gave an amusing turn as King Herod.
Nelson’s staging of the show was curiously static, more like an Easter pageant than a play. There was a lot of standing around singing without scenic focus, and in an attempt to relate to other characters scattered around the stage in semi-circular configurations, soloists were constantly forced to upstage themselves, often even singing lyrics directed at one character yet facing away from them. Entire numbers were performed with the soloist way upstage on the higher platform, such as “Simon Zealotes” in which soloist Shannon Calkins was just lost amidst the swirl of motion downstage and all around her.
The choreography by Jenny Fitzpatrick broke up the stasis with aggressive, herky-jerky motions, sort of like artistic kick-boxing. Although it seemed simple enough, the dancers did not perform with much synchronicity — it was fairly sloppy dancing.
The lighting design by Danny Bowling added both energy and anxiety to the show. From beginning to end, two banks of multi-colored lights in the middle of the stage purposefully flared and glared and strobed directly into the audience’s eyes, with increased intensity and frequency as the evening progressed. This was a serious miscalculation: The audience all around me complained that they couldn’t see the action onstage, and then when the facing lights were not shattering our retinas, the other lighting seemed too dark. If it was meant to simulate a rock concert or to place the actors artistically in silhouette, it did not work.
What the show did need to make it more like a rock concert was louder sound. Both the singers and the 12-piece orchestra needed more amplified presence for the ambiance of the park and for the aesthetic of the score, although the microphones sometimes distorted even at their unsatisfying settings. And speaking of the score, the singers took lots of vocal liberties with the familiar music, which is not uncommon in rock and pop, but often seemed very contemporary compared to the early 1970s vibe of the score itself. Like the dancing, the orchestra was out of synch with itself throughout the evening, and, to be honest, made a mess out of many passages, most egregiously the usually-beautiful instrumental postlude that ends the show – yikes!
I feel certain that throughout the remaining performances of this production, the music, under the direction of Jessica Slaton Greene, will get tighter, as will the dancing. Yes, Jesus Christ Superstar is rock music, but it is also an extremely sophisticated opera, both musically and dramatically — a masterpiece of its genre. The amount of detailed preparation and interpretation it requires is not to be underestimated. I hope SummerFest’s production will continue growing and striving to make the impact it could.
IF YOU GO
Jesus Christ Superstar July 8-10, 21-24
As You Like It July 14-17
Showtimes: 8:45 p.m.
Where: Woodland Park, 601 E. High St.
Tickets: $10 general admission, $15 with chair rental.