THE COMPELLING NIKITA BURSHTEYN IS JESUS AND THE CAST OF JCS BRING A TRADITIONAL LOOK TO THE ANDREW
TRI-VALLEY REPS POWERFUL AND ENTERTAINING JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR INCLUDES
SOME OF THE BEST OF BAY AREA TALENT
Tri Valley Reps bold production of the iconic rock opera is now on stage at the Bankhead theatre in Livermore through January 29th. Co Directors Kathleen Breedveld’s and Paul Vega’s version of Lloyd Webber’s and Rice's musical take on the last days of Jesus Christ is a traditional look at this 1971 musical. It is galvanizing , creative, fast-paced and extremely moving. It is everything you want in a production of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. I remark at its traditional version of this rock opera, I have seen several productions of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, and there were so many creative gems, directorial twists and turns, in the this production at the Bankhead stage I sat in awe. It is a tour de force of the traditional bible theme.
The legendary lyricist Tim Rice (Evita, The Lion King) and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (Evita, The Phantom of the Opera), premiered Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971 on Broadway and 46 years later it remains a beloved classic. The instantly recognizable tunes and daringly contemporary lyrics started out as one of the most popular albums of all-time, selling over seven million copies, as well as creating a truly global smash hit, with sold-out concert productions in more than 40 countries, until it opened in musical version, and a noted feature film.
Colliding the story of Christ’s journey to the cross with the electrified sounds of blues, rock and funk, JCS was an early godsend for the composer. Breedveld and Vega assembled one of the most talented casts I have seen on the Bankhead stage. A solid cast of 44 headed by the powerhouse Nikita Burshteyn as Jesus with the impressive Russell Mangan as Judas and lovely voiced Cheyenne Wells. The entertaining DC Scarpelli steals the show for his short appearance as King Herod; this is a very grand production with an exceptional cast. Every aspect of the score lead by music director, Sierra Dee, works together beautifully, and the cast, leads and chorus alike rise to the occasion. Leading the way is Burshteyn as Jesus, a more traditional darker, Interpretation, he has a marvelous voice, and his "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)," was thrilling, heartbreaking and a show stopper.
The irony of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is that Jesus is not the star, the lead character is our villain, Judas, who also tells the story. Russell Mangan is a a solid Judas, his personal conflict has a distinctly human rather than spiritual dimension. His opening song, "Heaven on their Minds," where he complains to Jesus about the naivete of his followers is full with his approaching anxiety, spilling out of frustration with their lives about to turn. In a part often played as enigmatic or impenetrably Burshteyn’s Jesus has his own fears and concerns that make it difficult to calm his former friend. The dynamic Wells as Mary Magdalene tries to sooth Jesus and turns to Judas to try unsuccessfully to settle him down the ballad "Everything's Alright," but she doesn't know how to connect with Judas and is perplexed about who Jesus is and why he does what he does.
The singing from all three leads is extraordinary in this rock opera. Burshteyn’s powerful, driven voice is a pure delivery that hits incredible high notes and holds them with passionate conviction. Wells has an astounding ability to bring an intimacy to her rich, resonant, voice making us feel as if we're hearing Mary's inner thoughts in "I Don't Know How to Love Him." Both Jesus and Judas have the vocal range for Webber’s extreme score. True to character, Mangan is more apt to attack the top end, while Burshteyn’s high notes are more exquisite. All three have moments to shine in solo numbers that transcend their vocal talent. These are all intimate archs of character driven crisis that brings the human struggle home to the audience.
King Herod in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is one of the greatest cameo parts ever, and the wildly talented DC Scarpelli is incredibly memorable in his solo number “King Herods Song.” Scarpelli brings the house down with every bit of musical flair he can muster. He’s a breath of fresh air and terrifying at the same time. The audience returns that joy of performance; they didn’t realize watching a villain could be so much fun. He is dressed in meters of shimmering ruffled gold fabric, like a crazily over-extended pierrot.
Other standouts are Matthew Liebowitz as Pilate, and local favorite Nick Quintell as Simon, his rousing "Simon Zealotes" is one of the many high points of the production. Each has the opposite tone, but with equal effect. Liebowitz who also is the vocal coach for the company brings a depth to Pilate when dealing with the non-combative Jesus that makes us feel for his difficult situation. Pontius Pilate is a formidable presence with Liebowitz’s astounding voice in “Pilate and Christ”. When Jesus admonishes Pilate "You have nothing in your hands, any power you have comes to you from far beyond" he snaps and makes the decision to crucify Christ.
Another favorite performance belongs to Matt Davis's imposing Caiaphas, whose deep, powerful voice gave me chills. Ably aided by Jeff Seaberg's sinister Annas is superb. Anita Colatto who gives a strong performance as the Maid by the Fire in her short solo “Peter’s Denial” along with Ron Houk as Peter, and a soldier played by the venerable Mark Wiesner. The talented Joren Reyes, Justin Sabino, and Joe Saam are highlights as apostles. The only clean shaven apostle and soldier is Wiesner who is sharp along with Savannah Stratton, Ally Murphy, Brian Olkowski, Michael A Jackson, Heidi Amstrup, Morgan Stinson and Amanda Ross excellent dance skills.
The supporting cast and ensemble are spot on, a show like this also lives and breathes by the ensemble, and here a large cast of various ages and genders keep the show constantly moving: Aimee Hennessy, Emma Kelly, Emily Kessel, Juliana Morrow, AJ Amstrup, Doug Lippi, Brian Morrow, Matt Kelly, Peter Budinger, Linda Davis, Betsy Edwards, Martha McDowell, Carrie Menefee, Ally Murphy, Claire Shepard, Clarisse Edwards, Britt Jensky, Suzie Shepard, Lisa Saaz, Erik Wood, Kristen Torkildson, Mike Freeman and Keala Freitas. They all joyously play the various characters from apostles to lepers from loving Jesus fans to Jesus haters who dare to laugh at a crucifixion. The choreography is quite creative and full of verve although occasionally not as tight, yet they were all elegant.
My only other qualm, many of the costumes and robes rented from a Kansas City shop, made me feel I was at a pajama party but designer Kathleen Qiu did well with the all white look for the number "Superstar". Scarpelli designed his own King Herod costume and look, and it sparkled with gold and glam. Breedveld designed Jesus costume and head of thorns and Nikita brought his own special pain to his tattered robes as the second act deals with his downfall. Sarah Liebowitz’s make up was effective during “Trial Before Pilate” and the thirty nine bloody lashes, her wigs and hair design were also effective. I was impressed that most of the men grew their hair and beards out for this production. Especially Burshteyn who has spent weeks not grooming his hair so he could be this well executed Jesus he portrays.
Set designer, Brian Olkowski, kept the set simple and his carpenter Jess Hutchins, built a main set high rise piece that loomed over the cast and was great at showcasing the featured cast entrances. Co Director Paul Vega who is most noted for his capable lighting designs has again created a rich deep affective design blended with his use of a constant mist and fog that gives this musical a dark depth that becomes a character in this production. Vega is a master at creating fully realized, intense, moody lighting and can now add his appealing directing skills.
This JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is more than just special; it's a celebration that set the tone for rock operas and help to open this door on Broadway. Choreographers Morgan Stinson and Catherine Delos Santos open the rock opera with a moody ballet of sorts with the Tormentors Heidi Amstrup, Amanda Ross and featuring Stinson. The three are very smooth dancers seen throughout the two hour show taking us through each scene. Later Stinson and Santo's feature the soul sisters Tiana Paulding, Morgan Stinson, and Kirsten Torkildson to lead their stylish anthem "Superstar" dance number.
Director Producer Breedveld takes her time when necessary, there is silence as Judas weeps at his own betrayal as the cast walks away. These types of details that both directors bring to this show are brilliant, sculpting each segment into something distinct, vivid and compelling. The sold out opening weekend audience sat in bliss silence at the moving moments during this production. But of course at the end of many of the iconic numbers like “Hosanna”, “Gethsemane”, and “Superstar” the audience was almost on their feet with applause.
The production is driven by a truly foolproof orchestra, led by music director Sierra Dee. The nine member pit were tight with a great sound and kept the show moving with some beautiful solos from Steve Danska on guitar and Taylor Rankin on percussion. Vocal coach and cast member Matt Liebowitz brought this 44 member cast to sounds that lifted the Bankhead theatre off its foundation.
Everything that comes with that exultation drives the show to its inevitable conclusion. The apostles, eager for success, focus on the wrong things. The powers that be are threatened. Jesus worries that they’re missing the point. And Judas, our narrator, thinks the whole thing has gotten out of hand and accepts the bribe as the first act curtain drops to almost silent effective applause.
I have seen JCS many times set in themes like 1940’s Nazi Germany, or in the summer of love hippie setting that can become tiresome, so I was very pleased to see this show directed in its original setting at that bible time line.The cast, creative team, and orchestra of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR work together to create an experience that the audience will not soon forget. This is not some tired oldie from a bygone age; it works just as well as it did forty six years ago. The story, as interpreted by these talented folks, though the overall effect of the show is humbling, you’ll still leave the theatre humming those famous melodies. As they come back over the next few days, you get little reminders Tri Valley's remarkable production of this classic is a great way to start your 2017 theatre season.
Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre Presents:
Jesus Christ Superstar
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book by Tim Rice
Directed by Kathleen Breedveld
and Paul Vega
Choreography by Morgan Stinson
And Cathrine Delos Santos
Musical Direction by Sierra Dee,
Produced by Kathleen Breedveld.
Through January 29th
2400 First Street, Livermore, CA
Running time: 2 hours, one intermission
Tickets: $29-$43; 925-373-6800, www.trivalleyrep.org
Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/trivalleyrep/
For tickets - visit the Bankhead Theater box office at or call 925-373-6800, Tuesday thru Saturday, or visit online:
Pictures by Robert Sholty and DC Scapelli