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At ART, 'Superstar' still shines after nearly half a century

The rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” has always belonged to Judas, and never more so than in the sold-out production being presented this Easter season by American Repertory Theater of Western New York.

Much more than Christopher Teal as Jesus, Anthony Alcocer’s Judas brings the passion to this now-classic version of the passion of the Christ. Along with his acting chops, Alcocer has the right, rough voice for the show, which along with The Who’s “Tommy” pretty much invented the concept of a rock opera.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Timothy Rice raised a few kinds of hell nearly 50 years ago when they took on the last days of Christ as seen through the eyes of Judas. While Jesus’s lyrics hone closely to the Gospels, their Judas goes way off scripture. He wants more fire from his God, more power— more show.

Alcocer plays him with an urgent energy, all the more noticeable compared with the show’s other leads.

For starters, our first glimpse of Jesus is almost passive. In the joyous early scenes, with hosannas ringing round him, this Christ appears to be slightly dazzled by all the attention, like a dreamy-eyed pop star astonished by his sudden fame rather than an influential prophet who poses a threat to the king or Rome. Having many of the disciples played by young women only adds to that impression.

Much is the fault of the script, with the title character deliberately underwritten by Webber and Rice. Teal eventually gains control of the figure and puts his very good voice to fine use in his pleading, praying rendition of “Gethsemane.”

Overall, this is a worthy “Superstar.” Director Matthew LaChiusa has assembled a talented group of local theater veterans and newcomers — some still in high school — to fill out the 18-member cast.

Nick Lama, left, and Christopher Teal in "Jesus Christ, Superstar" at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York. (Photo by Katherine Butler)

 

Among the best is Nick Lama, who brings an impressive subtlety to his Pilate. With every controlled gesture he captures Pilate’s dilemma, as he tries to resolve the problem of this pesky prophet and the pharisees who want him dead.

Gary Andrews-Stieglitz also hits his mark, adding a visceral malevolence to hedonistic Herod’s jazzy confrontation with his challenger for King of the Jews.

Candice Kogut, who also is artistic director, gives Mary Magdalene a lovely voice for her love and fears, but she seems to be singing more from her head than her heart. The emotional distance is most notable when she is followed on stage by Alcocer’s hot-headed Judas, whose embraces of Jesus show a frightening mix of devotion and despair.

Matthew LaChiusa, set designer Thomas LaChiusa and the rest of the production crew worked a few miracles of their own to squeeze the sprawling musical into ART’s intimate theater space, tucking the band (yes, the music is live) under a second story on the set and moving the players in every compass direction with an ease that belies its difficulty level.

There is only one number, when almost the entire cast is on stage and dancing, that feels a little cramped. Otherwise, the movement and simple costume changes are fluid and well-managed. Elaine Heckler’s costume design is a mash-up of “Mad Max” and the show’s hippie roots, with only Jesus and Pilate in “proper” period attire. It works.

Even with the addition of two Wednesday performances on March 21 and 28, ART has announced that all the shows are sold out. Those without tickets can get on a waiting list in the case of cancellations, with seats made available at 7:45 p.m. on performance nights.

Theater review

"Jesus Christ Superstar"

3 stars (out of 4)

Presented through March 31 by American Repertory Theater of Western New York at 330 Amherst St. All shows are sold out; for waiting list information, call the box office mornings at 697-0837. Visit artofwny.org.

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