“Jesus Christ Superstar” Nailed by Signature’s Bold New Production

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By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Natascia Diaz (Mary Magdalene) in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Signature Theatre through July 2, 2017

Photo by C. Stanley Photography

This production of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1973 Broadway show of “Jesus Christ Superstar” should be the definitive version produced anywhere—anytime! Boom.  If you liked the 1970 rock opera concept album and/or the 1973 movie, you will LOVE this staging and casting.  If you didn’t like it then, this production might not change your mind, but you will, I think, appreciate the resources and the innovative thinking on the parts of the director, Joe Calarco, the scenic designer, Luciana Stecconi (the striking must-see set truly sets the tone for this piece), and the energetic intensity of choreographer, Karma Camp.  This is an intriguing, stunning show! 

“Jesus Christ Superstar” is also absolutely breathtaking when you consider this was a very young Lloyd Webber writing one of his earliest pieces of through-sung rock opera with Tim Rice (they later collaborated on “Evita,” a much more mature venture).  I had the album and loved many of the songs. Later, I enjoyed the rather odd movie (Andrew Lloyd Webber reportedly hated what producer Robert Stigwood did to his concept for the production).   When I saw the touring production in the 70’s with the original Jesus, Ted Neely, I found it flat and uninteresting compared to the bright promise of the original concert album.  The Andrew Lloyd Webber music we hear in this iteration is much the same, but this production has better sets and costumes, better singers, heightened orchestrations, a couple of accomplished actors actually accompanying themselves onstage, and greatly improved sound! The story depicts the last week in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, ending with his crucifixion, and gives us the entire cast of characters you have read and studied about, bringing them all to revolutionary life by director, Calarco, and choreographer, Kamp, in ingenious ways.

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Bobby Smith (Pontius Pilate) with the cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Signature Theatre through July 2, 2017
Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Signature’s “Superstar” has many standout performances such as Nicholas Edwards as a deeply disturbed, charismatic and emotional Jesus of Nazareth. Edwards sings beautifully and had me at “What’s the Buzz,” while his sculpted body—(fanning myself)–makes Jesus a tad sexier (well, a lot more!) than you generally think of him.  Other performances of particular note: a sinister and vocally thrilling Bobby Smith (at the top of his game after recently winning the Hayes Award© for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical for Signature’s “La Cage aux Folles”) as Pontius Pilate, and Natascia Diaz, also a Hayes Award© winning actress/singer/dancer, (last year’s Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical for Signature’s “West Side Story”) as Mary Magdalene, who gorgeously sings among other pieces, the memorable “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”

Other actors/singers who need special mention are Thomas Adrian Simpson as an arresting Caiaphas with a commanding deep bass voice, Sam Ludwig singing in an interesting falsetto as Annas, a lovely Kara Tameika-Watkins, who sings up a storm as a temple priest and Ari McKay Wilford, as the duplicitous and torn Judas. Wilford is a thrillingly believable actor/singer as well as guitarist.

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) with the cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Signature Theatre through July 2, 2017
Photo by C. Stanley Photography

One of my Signature Theatre favorites, Sherri Edelen, literally sails through the hilarious “King Herod’s Song.” She is the perfect casting choice for Herod and she makes the most of the quasi-Dixieland take on his song, with chorus members hoisting her up off the stage to “walk on water” and flipping her around like a doll!  Her big number is one of those worth the price of admission!  And there are many.

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) with the cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Signature Theatre through July 2, 2017
Photo by C. Stanley Photography

There are many more outstanding performances than I have space to discuss in detail here, but all of them meld to bring this epic, nostalgic piece from the tie-dyed and blurry 70’s to brilliant, throbbing close-to-modern life. Those performances include Peter, played by Michael Mainwaring, and Simon, crafted by Awa Sal Secka.  The Apostles, who in this cast include one woman, round out a full-throated, exciting sound with dancing that is high intensity, non-stop and fascinating to watch.  I also must talk about the amazing seven piece orchestra, led by William Yanesh; the updated monochromatic, and  often ingenious costumes by Frank Labovitz (such as the Soul Sisters as Judas’ backup group, looking so cool in pristine white robes with fabulous gigantic white jewel-studded Elvis belts), the strong lighting design by Jason Lyons and the rocking (but not deafening, thank you!) sound design by Ryan Hickey which provide solid backup for this brilliant re-tooling of an old favorite rock opera.

With fight choreography by Casey Kaleba; projection design by Zachary G. Borovay; New York casting by Laura Stancyzk, CSA; production stage manager, Kerry Epstein; assistant stage manager, Karen Currie; and production assistant, Joey Blakely. Others in the cast not mentioned above include Vincent Kempski, David Landstrom, Calvin McCullough, Jobari Parker-Namdar, Chris Sizemore, Harrison Smith, Solomon Parker III, and Korinn Walfall.

Ticket and Performance Information:

About two hours with one intermission. Through July 2 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, Va. Tickets:  $40-114.  Call 703-820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.