Review by CATHY MATHIAS.
Perfectly timed with the Easter season, Cocoa Village Playhouse is now presenting “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It’s also timely because the theater world is celebrating 40 years of the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber with a new international arena tour, a UK television special and a Blu-Ray DVD release.
Since 1971, this rock opera, born during the hippie counter-culture revolution, has been presented in modern dress. This local production turns the tradition of this musical upside down, presenting a show which looks like something taken from the pages of a Sunday School pamphlet. The only modern touches here are Herod’s sparkly dancers and the scene of Judas in the after-life.
In slow moving, gentle fashion, Benjamin Cox personifies that blue-eyed Jesus in the white flowing robes we know so well. It’s uncanny how much he looks like the traditional image of Jesus presented in Western culture. If you’ve seen any Biblical film, you’re familiar with this depiction but brace yourself for his singing — remember this is rock, not all sweetness and light.
Natalie McKnight astonishes in her portrayal of Mary Magdalene. Her brilliantly clear voice is effortlessly ascendant in the famous “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” which became such a popular hit in the 1970s. A former resident of New York City, McKnight toured with this musical for ten years so she knows it well.
James Spiva does a fine job revealing his confusion and guilty conscience as a curly-haired Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrays Jesus. While he could perform less angrily at the beginning to give himself somewhere to go later in the show, Spiva’s voice is strong. The audience wanted to hear his voice emanating from those feverish lips more clearly.
In fact, we couldn’t hear many of the voices because the music from the absolutely top drawer orchestra (kudos to the musicans) was so loud. Yes, this show is supposed to be ear-splitting because it was inspired by heavy metal rock, and yes, it’s devilishly difficult to sing opera, but the vocalists were nearly indecipherable. Some in the audience asked seatmates what was going on, some cupped their ears or fiddled with their hearing aids.
Other familiar songs include “What’s the Buzz”, “Hosanna,” “Everything’s Alright” and of course the triumphant theme song “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
The traditional Last Supper tableau begins act two mimicked the painting by Leonardo da Vinci so well, it got a round of applause. The Garden of Gethsemane scene is another well-planned tableau with the sleeping apostles set against the image of Jesus in prayer. Created by scenic/lighting designer Ian Cook, the visuals evoked Renaissance painting complete with puffy clouds, evocative starry nights and hopeful blue skies. Two sets of stairs and a platform serve, in turn, the setting for the Palatine HIlls, the Temple, PIlate’s Palace and the soldiers’ torture area.
But while the tableaux were strong, the show feels a little visually static, especially in the scene when Judas paces around the Pharisees before accepting the bag of silver. The scene in which Jesus is lashed by centurions and raised on the cross is spell-binding, despite seeing the wires lifting him into heaven.
In her curtain speech, director Anastacia Hawkins-Smith said she had tried for many years to get the rights to perform this musical and finally it happened this year. Hallelujah!
The show runs through March 31 at Cocoa Village Playhouse, 300 Brevard Avenue, Cocoa. Tickets are to . Call 321-636-5050 or visit www.cocoavillageplayhouse.com.