By Barry Reszel
For the first time in my life, I skipped mass today without any twinge of Catholic guilt.
Saturday night’s Sermon on the Paramount, the Aurora company’s impeccable production of Jesus Christ Superstar, was all the church I needed this weekend.
Because as a Catholic Christian, it may just be the best worship I’ve ever experienced.
To be fair, Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s 1970 rock opera following Jesus’ last weeks leading to his crucifixion is stirring musical theatre for patrons of any or no faith. But especially in the throes of the Easter season, dwelling on this story is particularly poignant for Christians, who quite literally bet their lives on belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior.
While a detailed plot summary and full production history may be read here, it’s important to know Webber’s passion story (lyrics by Tim Rice) is conveyed primarily through the eyes of Judas Iscariot, the ultimate betrayer. Additionally in Paramount’s production, Director Ron Kellum tenderly adds a second spotlight, asking his congregation to consider the faithful Mary Magdalene in ways they might not have before.
In truth, if Kellum was to stand and recite an Easter homily based on his interpretation, he might well ask those gathered:
Who remained loyal to Jesus in the frenetic hours following his arrest?
Who alone wept for him at the foot of the cross?
And finally…If Mary Magdalene is not a central figure in this operatic dramatization of Jesus’ final days, why oh why would Andrew Lloyd Webber give her the best two songs in his songbook?
Kellum’s staged answers to these questions are to offer Mary’s simple, humble presence amidst chaos; coax her soft sobs and pit them against a backdrop of horrified silence as Jesus dies; and to wisely cast glorious Broadway veteran Felicia Boswell who offers brilliant renditions of “I Don’t Know How to Love him” and “Everything’s Alright.” Indeed this young Diana Ross (whom she played on Broadway in Motown) is an absolute treasure whose vocals, nuanced acting and superb movement underscore the star she is.
But if Boswell is this production’s Holy Spirit (and she is), the other two equal parts of this triune God are Mykal Kilgore portraying Judas and Evan Tyrone Martin as Jesus.
Kilgore is another member of Motown‘s Broadway cast with a growing, glowing resume including a spot on the cast of NBC’s The Wiz Live! His depiction of Judas as narrator, radical community organizer, enthusiast, betrayer and, ultimately, anguished suicide victim, is heroic and life changing. Musical theatre patrons will rightly remember Kilgore as the performer they’d happily pay a good sum to hear sing the alphabet; his crystalline vocals are unforgettable (solo “Heaven on Their Minds” opens the show and he doesn’t stop singing even after his character dies, two hours later). So, too, does his presence as narrator keep the pacing crisp; a director’s dream. But what I will remember about Kilgore’s riveting performance is his offering a new interpretation of Judas that requires a consideration of compassion. In today’s world, anything bringing about tenderness and mercy is welcomed and deserves mention.
In The Bible, Jesus is called: Wonder Counselor, Prince of Peace, Son of the Most High, Hope of Glory, Mighty One, Morning Star, Lamb of God, Bread of Life, Truth, Word, Way. Chicagoland stage veteran Evan Tyrone Martin‘s Jesus adds Dulcet-Voiced One, Uncertain Leader and Vulnerably Human. Superstar, indeed.
But be clear, this is a cast of stars, onstage and behind it, whose simultaneous glow turns this production into church. Paramount’s technical professionals are par excellence. They include music (Kory Danielson, Tom Vendafreddo and their fabulous orchestra); sets (Kevin Depinet); costumes (Theresa Ham); lighting (Greg Hofmann); projections (Mike Tutaj); sound (Adam Rosenthal); hair, wigs and makeup (Katie Cordts), props (Amanda Relaford) and more.
Back onstage, Avionce Hoyles is an excellent Herod who delights with the playful lyric “So, you are the Christ, you’re the great Jesus Christ. Prove to me that you’re no fool; walk across my swimming pool. If you do that for me, then I’ll let you go free. Come on, King of the Jews.” Loranzo Rush, Jr. is a booming Caiaphas; Rufus Bonds, Jr. plays an appropriately wishy-washy Pontius Pilate.
The rest of this stellar, all-Black cast includes Mark J.P. Hood, Gilbert Domally, Reneisha Jenkins, Renellè Nicole, Kafi Pierre, Stephen “Blu” Allen, Jaren D.M. Grant, Gabriel Mudd, Jos N. Banks, Ciera Dawn, Candace C. Edwards, Keirsten Hodgens, Micheal Lovette, Brian Nelson, Jr., Jaymes Osborne, Jon Pierce, Travis Porchia, Camille Robinson, Alexis J. Roston and Jessica Brooke Seals.
Director/Choreographer Kellum explained his highly effective casting: “I was the young man of color sitting in theaters wondering if there was a space for me in this art form,” he says in his Playbill Director’s Note. “And now I see that our responsibility as storytellers is to find opportunities to represent truth in ways that translate to every audience member, regardless of color, creed, orientation or status.
“This is an incredible opportunity to unite the retelling of one of the greatest stories ever told with an iconic piece of musical theatre, through the voices and lens of my community. Why an All-Black Superstar? Why not?! I’m a true believer in the power of theatre. There are worlds that I’ve been able to explore as an actor, choreographer, director and producer that have allowed me to view the world in which we live with more empathy, more respect and more love than I, at once, ever thought possible.
“I want this production to be a disruption to the status quo and a reevaluation of what can and should be done in the theatre.
“What would Jesus say if he came back today? I hope he would say, ‘Keep telling my story. Keep telling it in many different ways, but always come back to the truth of my story: the message of love and inclusion.’ ”
Amen, amen I say to you!
Church of the Blessed Paramount is holding services eight times a week and welcomes congregants of any race, color, gender, national origin, age, religion, creed, disability, veteran’s status, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
Paramount Theatre presents “Jesus Christ Superstar” through May 28 at 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Liz Lauren.