For a very, very lapsed Catholic (you know what they say: there are no ex-Catholics, just lapsed ones, right?) I have a strange affinity for religious musicals. Godspell? Love it. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? Love it. Oh, but Jesus Christ Superstar? Adore it. One of the first Broadway cast albums I bought for myself (on cassette, even) and I listened to it on so many road trips the tape actually wore out. If JCS is on stage, I’m there. And I warn you, I’m going to be pretty tough on it, so deep does my love go.
Schenectady Light Opera Company’s JCS, directed by Trish Scott-Dembling, is a huge undertaking – and the theater does an amazing job with it. In her director’s notes, Scott-Dembling says she chose to update the setting of the show to modern day, which is honestly my only concern. The set looks very much like the set of Godspell – and this is JCS. Godspell is (to some extent) the modernized story of Jesus, while JCS is a very traditionally set story … but when the music starts, it’s a rock opera. When you set the show in modern times (and I understand what she’s going for – we have enough going on politically that there are many parallels that can be drawn, so it’s an interesting idea) that subversion almost disappears; there’s nothing strange about people in modern times singing rock. I’m torn about the choice. On one hand I like that she wanted to give us something we haven’t seen, but on the other hand I think it might have weakened the message.
This is one of the most vocally difficult musicals there is, and this cast more than delivers. Kent Benwell, a Josh Groban lookalike, is Jesus – both charismatic and haunted, his work in the song “Gethsemane” is tear-inducing and his relationship with Mary Magdalene (Veronica Lybrand) is truly touching. Speaking of Lybrand, she is a marvel – she’s a younger Mary than I’ve seen, but has the world-weary air that’s needed, and a beautifully rich and full voice that filled the theater. I’m sad to see in her bio that she’s leaving the area – I was looking forward to seeing her onstage again. This is Judas’s show, and Nick Cotrupi makes the most of the role, both vocally and dramatically. I wanted a bit more angst from Shawn Olander-Hahn as Pontius Pilate, but think he was having an off night and will give him the benefit of the doubt, and Bill Geltzeiler’s Herod is an absolute comedic gem.
The choreography, by Scott-Dembling and Emily Fuller, is beautiful – I’m not a dance person at all, so for me to even notice it, more so be awed by it, means a lot.
The show is selling very well – a quick peek at the website tells me that if you want tickets, you need to get moving immediately. JCS isn’t performed that often, and this is a very, very good production. Get over there and give them the full houses they deserve.
“Jesus Christ Superstar”, Schenectady Light Opera Company, 427 Franklin St., Schenectady, January 19 – 28, $28-$18, Run time: 1 hour and 55 minutes with a 15-minute intermission, (877) 350-7378, http://www.sloctheater.org/