Burlington’s Haylofters traditionally put on a musical every summer. They also have a tradition of staging challenging productions. Jesus Christ Superstar is challenging not only for the usual reasons, but also because of its origins. Superstar started as a concept recording, a rock opera intended for album, not stage. As a result, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice really cut loose on their cast choices, picking from the best that rock and stage had to offer — singers with the range and power to bring the passion needed to the work.
That’s tough for a small theater company to match, but the Haylofters have done an admirable job, producing their most ambitious and engaging production since Oklahoma! (2006). Director Jenny Hoffman has fielded a very large cast, featuring an impressive chorus, and given the play a modern urban setting, complete with scaffolding, graffiti, and a punk Pontius Pilate. But it’s great performances from the principal players that make Superstar sing.
The play starts strong with Paul Weber giving a rousing, tortured interpretation of Judas, torn between love for Jesus and worries about this “revolution” getting out of hand. Bob Wang is pitch perfect as Jesus, a role he seems born to play. Wang, the pastor of Burlington’s Plymouth Congregational UCC, brings empathy, gravitas, and … passion to the part (in addition to a superbly trained singing voice). Kimberly Casey sings her heart out as Mary Magdalene, and Dustin Davis brings a surprising combination of operatic projection and hard-rock soul to Pilate.
The rest of the cast is good too, both in individual numbers and collectively. They are haunting as an off-stage chorus and particularly good on harmonies, and the numbers featuring the whole ensemble really rock the old Malt House. I have only two minor complaints, and neither are about the actual performance. One is that the theater’s sound system sometimes does not adequately project the range of the heard-but-not seen live orchestra providing the music. The other is that the program book does not include biographical information on the principal cast members. I would have liked to reference the other work of these gifted people, but, sadly, I am unable to because of this omission.
Those are small quibbles, though, in what is one of the Haylofters’ best recent productions, a rockin’ passion opera that is sure to sell out most — if not all — of its run. Catch it now, or regret missing it later! It’s taken the Haylofters years to secure the rights to Superstar, so heaven only knows when they’ll be able to stage it again. Superstar is a great time for both believers, musical fans, and lovers of rock and roll.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays at the Malt House Theater in Burlington July 14-17, 21-24, and 28-31, 2011. Check http://www.thehaylofters.com for show times and ticket availability.