“Jesus Christ Superstar,” this 1970 rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber, is the third in a quartet of musicals (with “Hair,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and “Godspell”) from around 1970 that capture the sentiments of that era: Love your neighbor and speak truth to power. Those sentiments are, of course, still relevant.
But director/choreographer Trish Scott-Dembling and designer Michael McDermott suggest that these ideas have never gone out of fashion with a set featuring classical Roman architecture (marble temple with columns) upstage complemented by graffiti-splattered walls of a modern city downstage (note Picasso’s anti-war painting “Guernica”).
The costuming, by Michael Camelo (who, along with Adrienne Sherman, serves as the music director), is contemporary, with bad guys Caiaphas (James Alexander) and Pilate (Shawn Olander-Hahn) in CEO drag and the apostles/citizens of Jerusalem in street clothes. Thus, the message of this biblical tale is one for our time, too.
The story is familiar. Jesus (Kent Benwell) has attracted a following, and this strange power he seems to have to animate the Roman-whipped Jews threatens Caiaphas’s authority. Caiaphas, backed by sycophant Annas (Bob Titus), finds a traitor in disciple Judas (Nick Cotrupi), who, driven (against his will?) to take the 30 pieces of silver, delivers Jesus to the state. What follows is inevitable: the turning of the crowd against Jesus, Jesus’ capture and crucifixion, Judas’ suicide, and the subsequent spreading of a message that still resonates among Christians.
A few quibbles: The steep staircase is a challenge to some of the actors, whose grand entrances are, unfortunately, diminished. The singing is sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra (particularly when the singer’s tessitura is low), so the words are tough to hear. In a through-composed show (no dialogue) song lyrics are crucial. And the stage business of the ensemble occasionally gets repetitious.
But none of these observations are fatal to a production that is musically wonderful and visually appealing, thanks to the training by Camelo and Sherman and Greg Rucinski’s subtle lighting design.
The choreography in numbers like “Simon Zealotes” (a fine Stephen McCauley, Jr.) and “Everything’s Alright” shows off the ensemble, who dance with energy and sing lustily throughout.
Bill Geltzeiler as King Herod, backed by a gaggle of red-costumed, high-stepping gals (choreographed by Emily Fuller), hysterically brings a touch of seedy Las Vegas to the proceedings with his snarky “King of the Jews.”
Joey Titus, as Peter, is touching. And two powerful singers play the antagonists: Alexander is a growling and menacing Caiaphas; Olander-Hahn (always glad to see him) plays Pilate as a panicky man in charge — the most dangerous kind.
As Mary Magdalene, Veronica Lybrand makes a stunning SLOC debut, shaping “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” with vocal and acting precision.
And Cotrupi and Benwell (SLOC debut) are strong dueling tenors, each with remarkable flexibility and color in his range. Benwell makes Jesus’ agony real. Cotrupi’s Judas prowls the stage, tormented by this unusual adversary and his own treachery. (A nod, too, to saxophonist James Haertel in Judas’ dramatic close to Act I, “Damned for All Time.”)
Performances are sold out this weekend and selling fast for next weekend. Producers Matthew Dembling and Jill E. Ross can be justifiably proud.
Jesus Christ Superstar
WHERE: Schenectady Light Opera Company, 427 Franklin St.
WHEN: through Jan. 28
HOW MUCH: $28-$18
MORE INFO: 877-350-7378, or sloctheater.org