Not this time around, thank you very much.
Jesus Christ Superstar , the 1970 Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera, that began as a concept album before it ever hit the stage, has been scaled down into an intimate, cabaret-size production that focuses more on the interpersonal relationships than spectacle. The story of the Messiah is, of course, drawn from the Gospel and provides a spin on the final week of Jesus’ life. The musical ends with Christ’s crucifixion but, unlike Godspell, a musical from the same year that also focuses on Jesus and his followers, his resurrection is not even hinted at. Because of the sorrowful, shockingly brutal conclusion, the ending of this musical is often considered a downer, but all the drama, the occasional humor and the beautifully moving moments and gorgeous score are what audiences remember most.
This production wisely strips away much of the superfluous glitter and gimmicks often associated with the show and makes Jesus, Judas, Mary Magdalene and the rest of the characters more human than in any larger-scale version. Although this cast of singing actors is stellar, the simplicity and passion is amplified and takes a front seat to everything else. Director Anzevino, Musical Director Jeremy Ramey and Choreographer Brenda Didier have drawn all the power, eloquence and beauty of this piece from their talented cast.
The performances they’ve coaxed from these actors, the music they create and the sharp, expressive dance moves performed within this tiny space all spell professional excellence. Add to this a gritty, industrial look to the No Exit Cafe, provided by Adam Veness, with a set design that melds seamlessly with Brock Alter’s projections with Maya Michele Fein’s spectacular lighting. William Morey’s anachronistic costumes, a blend of the now and then, allow sufficient movement, define character and are startling and sparkly when the demand dictates.
But it’s the cast that makes this show sing. Maxwell J. DeTogne, who impressed recently in local productions of Evita and Hair, is the perfect Jesus. He’s gentle and humane, kind and forgiving, but can also fly into a rage when provoked. The young man has the voice of an angel and he understands that he doesn’t need to over-sing Lloyd Webber’s music in this small space. And, thanks to Ramey’s expert musical direction, DeTogne doesn’t just vocalize this score, he lives it. He makes the music and lyrics his dialogue. The same can be said for other members of this cast, as well.
The incomparable Danni Smith, so excellent in Theo Ubique’s recent productions of Always…Patsy Cline and Passion, astounds once again, this time as a very vulnerable, loving Mary Magdalene. Everything that happens in this musical, whether or not it directly involves her character, is mirrored in Smith’s eyes. This lovely lady’s face says everything. And when she sings, Heaven is definitely on our minds. Smith’s renditions of “Everything’s Alright” and, especially, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” are performed with such honesty and raw emotion as to bring the audience to tears.
Donterrio Johnson’s Judas is quite a different animal. He’s feral and hurt. His decision to betray and sell out his friend is motivated by what he sees as Christ’s inflated ego and feelings of self-importance. We see the jealousy and hatred in his eyes whenever Jesus is with Mary Magdalene. The actor’s face is a canvas of constraint and confusion, expressed in his music and body language. The man’s Judas Kiss is the only gesture able to finalize these feelings. Johnson’s vocal power soars continually throughout this production, and his final number, the spectacular title song, is performed with flash and drive.
Other standouts in this cast are Jonah D. Winston, wrapping his beautiful, resonant baritone around an evil Caiaphas; Caleb Baze as a sweetly devoted Simon, with an equally sweet voice; Tommy Bullington playing an outrageously funny, Elton John-bedazzled Herod; Ryan Armstrong, bringing a Ziggy Stardust quality to his sadly tortured portrayal of Pilate; Will Wilhelm, whose purring and posturing make Annas as despicable as he is winsome; and handsome Michael Ferraro’s gentle Peter as a loving, caring and devoted disciple. The talented ensemble features the accomplished vocals and movement by Khaki Pixley, Sharriese Hamilton and Jomar Ferreras.
As always, the audience is either seated on sofas or at small tables. During the show no one is more than a few feet away from the performers, which extends the intimate experience of this production. There’s an opportunity to order and enjoy a delicious three-course meal, delivered to your table before the performance by Herod or Mary Magdalene, with dessert and coffee served during the intermission.
Everything about this newly-imagined, vest pocket production of Webber and Rice’s first big hit is glorious. The look of the show is precise and spot-on. The show’s extraordinary music, sung by a company of talented actor/singers and accompanied by a 4-piece rock band is heavenly.
There’s so much humanity in this production, a quality the composer would undoubtedly applaud. After all, Webber’s created a portrait of Jesus Christ as a real, flesh-and-blood man, trying to bring good to the world, but whose aspirations have exceeded his grasp. Theo Ubique certainly has “Heaven on Their Minds” with this production.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” is presented through April 12 by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood, Chicago. Tickets are available by calling 800-595-4849 or online here. Additional information and Colin’s reviews of other area productions may at www.theatreinchicago.com.