Last weekend, Circle Players opened their 67th season with “Jesus Christ Superstar”. When I spoke with director Jason Lewis and cast members for one of my latest Rapid Fire 20 Q prior to their Friday, August 12 opening, there was an indication from Lewis that this “Superstar” had been brought into the modern age with mention of the current Syrian refugee crisis and hot button issues like political terrorism and religious turmoil. While I appreciate Lewis’ thought process and creativity involved in adding his own touches to the iconic 1970s rock opera, I couldn’t help thinking those updates and references are unnecessary. After all, why mess with perfection? After attending opening weekend, I’m happy to report that fans of the work can rest assured that the legendary soundtrack courtesy of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice is still what makes Circle Players’ “Jesus Christ Superstar” a spectacular night of theatre.
My partial dismissal of Lewis’ modern take may be due in part to some technical glitches with the multimedia news report montage that opens the show. Lewis shared his vision of the opening montage in the show’s playbill by revealing he wanted to “capture brief moments in history where people would have prayed for Jesus to return”. The night I attended the video didn’t seem cued up at the correct starting point, and included on-screen file names and video player controls that took away from the impact of the director’s intent. The images themselves seemed out of focus against the texture scrim which also detracted from the potentially powerful effect he director had hoped for. Other superfluous updates switch guns for swords and treat the temple scene as more of a nightclub, complete with bouncers and a velvet rope. Even the wardrobe choices are caught somewhere between the typical tie-dyed hippie garb associated with the time period the show first debuted, and the current throw-back trend of moroccan-inspired prints.
As for what this production does right, Lewis has assembled a solidly talented cast who honor the music and lyrics of “Jesus Christ Superstar”. Lewis wisely takes full advantage of the fact that the show is indeed a rock opera. The entirety of the story of Jesus’ last week on earth is told via song. With that in mind, Lewis was able to tap into the deep pool of talented singers and performers Music City is known for, in turn offering audiences the chance to see a few cast members they might not normally get to see in theatrical productions peppered with several who represent the best of Nashville’s musical theatre community.
From the beginning, Ben Gregory exhibits a thoughtful portrayal of Judas, who of course soon contemplates, and eventually carries out thoughts of betraying Jesus. Backed by the decidedly 70s psychedelic guitar riff of “Heaven on Their Minds”, Gregory’s Judas warns of the cost of fame and notoriety, setting not only the pace of the show, but the bar for his fellow cast mates.
“What’s the Buzz”, continues the show’s deceptively upbeat tempo and not only introduces Michael Kitts as Jesus, Erica Patterson as Mary Magdalene but also several members of the show’s ensemble cast. Whether by happy coincidence or divine casting, Kitts’ vocals are hauntingly similar to Ted Neeley, who came to fame thanks to his role as Jesus in the 1973 film adaptation and who continued to be synonymous with the role thanks to multiple return engagements over the years. As for Kitts, he isn’t just a Neeley soundalike, he also brings a rawness to the role, showing the human side of Jesus, the emotional, even surprisingly angry side rarely seen in more standard presentations of the work.
As for Patterson’s Mary Magdalene, she’s sheer perfection. Throughout the show, I found myself eagerly anticipating her next featured moment. Time and time again, she delivers from the aforementioned “What’s the Buzz” and “Everything’s Alright” to the Act 1 literal show-stopper (at least until after intermission), “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. Through her voice, Patterson is able to express not only her devotion to Christ, but also the internal conflict of her feelings for him as a man, not just a saviour. It’s that ability to convey those emotions and underlying thoughts, predominately by only her voice, that makes Patterson one of Nashville’s true treasures and absolutely one to keep an eye on as her career inevitably skyrockets.
Anyone who’s the least bit familiar with “Superstar” is undoubtedly familiar with the characters Caiaphas and Annas. Caiaphas is the High Priest who perceives Jesus as a national threat and Annas Caiaphas’ fellow-priest who is easily swayed to Caiaphas’ way of thinking. Introduced midway through Act 1 with “This Jesus Must Die”, Brian Jones’ booming bass voice hits all the right low notes as Caiaphas while Larry Jones’ countertenor could easily break glass achieving the tunes’ high points as Annas. Vocally diametrically opposite, Brian, clad in what looks to be a leather fetishist, and Larry, dressed like an albino Morpheus from “The Matrix”, the duo make for the perfect villain and his willing accomplice.
It’s not just the lead actors who turn in enjoyable performances, the entire ensemble is spot on. Thanks to Stephanie Jones-Benton’s uber-happy choreography, the ensemble presents a group caught somewhere between earnest believers, brainwashed cult members…or the youthfully exuberant cast of “I Hear America Singing”. Whether that’s a directorial wink to the cult of religion or simply a nod to the show’s original free-love choreo, it totally works. Ensemble standouts include Miracle Ham, Barrett Thomas, Jordan Lawhead, Susan Wood, Aaron Johnson and Aime Lara. Each of these performers possesses something, whether a look, a movement choice or just great stage presence that keeps the audience eye darting back to them throughout the show.
Also of note are Chris Mitchell, Chaz Howard and Rique Patire as Peter, Pontius Pilate and King Herod, respectively. A longtime Nashvillian, Mitchell gained local notoriety in the 90s for his band, The Collective. Proving his voice is strong as ever, Mitchell’s vocals stand out during “Superstar” group numbers. Howard, another Nashville fixture, last seen at Circle in their 1997 production of “One Flew Over the Coo Coo’s Nest”, proves his talents extend to guitar during “Superstar”‘s “Pilate’s Dream”. That leaves Patire. While Patire no longer calls Nashville home, to those who know him, he’ll always be a Nashvillian. Currently residing in Los Angeles, “Superstar” marks a homecoming of sorts in that years ago he was among Circle Players’ cast of “GodSpell”. In “Superstar”, Patire plays not one, not two, but three roles. At various times, he featured as Philip, one of Jesus’ apostles, then alongside the aforementioned Brian Jones and Larry Jones as one of the Priests (during which he maintains a stoic exterior in spite of the best efforts of the happy-go-lucky flock. But it’s his Trump-tastic turn as King Herod that’ll keep audiences buzzing. Director Lewis’ decision to poke fun at The Donald during “King Herod’s Song/Try it and See” isn’t anything revolutionary. I’ve seen productions that roasted everyone from Ronald Reagan to Ed Koch. That said, Patire’s Herod as Trump, complete with backup dancers, that somehow conjures the showmanship of Robert Preston and the comedic timing of Martin Short, is a much-needed laugh, given the turn of events it sandwiches within the contest of the play.
As the show turns decidedly somber, the audience is treated to still more stellar performances. There’s Erica’s beautiful rendition of “Could We Start Again Please?”, another all-in for the show’s title tune, “Superstar” and one last listen to Kitts’ tormented take on Jesus during the intensely emotional climatic “Crucifixion” scene.
As I mentioned at the top of this review, “Superstar” is nothing without the gorgeous score. To that end, special recognition has to be made to the show’s musical director, Dennis Palmer. From the show’s first note to its last, Palmer, alongside Lee Druce on keyboard, Tom D’Angelo on bass, guitarist Dale Herr, David Kellert on trumpet, trombonist Lance McCullough, Rebecca Robinson on horn, Rick Mraz on woodwinds and oboist Martyne Palmer lovingly, beautifully lift up a score that, like the story it tells, has and will stand the test of time for audiences and generations to come.
Circle Player’s “JC Superstar” continues its run with shows through Sunday, August 28 onstage at TSU’s Performing Arts Center . Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Friday-Sunday show tickets are $20 for Adults, $18 for Seniors (60+) and $16 for Children and Students ages 4 and up). Thursday, August 18 and August 25 are Pay-What-You-Can performances. Click Here to purchase tickets. For any other reservation requests or questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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