1970 album cover for the American musical production.
The theatre arts department of City College of San Francisco has done it again, in fact, it exceeds its previous productions with Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice’s iconic rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It literally rocks the house!
Director and choreographer Deborah Shaw and musical director Michael Shahani, worked closely with set designer Patrick Toebe and lighting designer Jeffrey Kelly to create what Shaw described as a “steam punk” atmosphere, enhanced by George Georges sound design of clanking metal and hissing steam. A metal scaffolding makes up the many-leveled set, backed by what appears to be a wall of thick, heavy, frayed ropes descending from the flies behind a scrim against which an array of psychedelic lights play, often changing colors and pulsing in time to tunes like “What’s the Buzz.” Shahani’s orchestra can barely be seen behind the scrim, but it’s certainly heard.
The large cast of close to three dozen actors, singers and or dancers consists of students, alumni, and other Bay Area talent. They are outfitted in Ralph Hoy’s inventive costumes. He and his staff: Sarah Moss, Julie Wong, Tatiana Prue, and Steve Murray, gives the production a certain 1930s Brechtian look. Characters such as the Soul Girls, Dancers, and Prostitutes wear short-skirts and blouses of colorful netting with flared sleeves, and low-cut, form-fitting, leather-like and metal studded vests, in the “Xena, Warrior Princess” mode. Their feet are shod in thick-soled, black, stomper boots fastened with metal buckles. The Three Angels’ (Natalie Ayala, Kasia Kransnopolska and Holly Labus, who also double as Prostitutes) costumes are augmented with black wings. The apostles and chorus wear outfits of early 20th century laborers.
After the Overture, black-bearded David Peterson as Judas Iscariot enters, singing “Heaven on Their Minds.” He wears a long, brown duster over pants and vest; his long hair in dreads, eyes rimmed in black. The amazing Peterson is electric, charismatic and passionate, yet, at the same time he allows Judas’s vulnerability and confusion to surface, so that you almost feel sorry for the guy for selling out Jesus. Peterson’s voice, like rough velvet, is strong and full of emotion.
Jesus (Zachary Bukarev-Padlo) is not the robed, long-haired, bearded sandal-wearing ethereal being we’re used to seeing, but a sweet-faced guy with a neat goatee and short blonde, wavy hair. He wears a khaki shirt, jodhpurs, boots, and a strange skewed plaid vest with an over the shoulder strap. Bukarev-Padlo’s tortured delivery allows us to experience his dilemma as he questions himself and his fate. Unasked for demands made on him prove too much.
Jenneviere Villegas plays a red-headed Mary Magdalene. You hear the sweet, plaintive keening of unrequited love in her voice as she sings, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Like David Peterson, Villegas, too, shows her vulnerability to and confusion about her feelings for Jesus.
Pilate is played by Ron McCan whose physical disability serves to enhance his role. He pushes himself from his “throne”/electric chair, moves purposefully across the stage wearing a kind of crown and embroidered robe, singing, “Pilate’s Dream” in which he meets Jesus, singing words that tell of his guilt for what he’s about to do to him, which he overcomes with his arrogance.
The entire production is remarkable, though some scenes stand out: One lively scene is of Jesus destroying the temple where drugs are sold, and pimps tout their prostitutes, as the chorus sings, “Temple”; another- gut-wrenching and dramatic- is that of lepers costumed in off-white pants and extended sleeved shirts resembling straightjackets, crawling, pulling themselves across the stage, moaning as they confront Jesus, grabbing at him, beseeching him to heal them. Overwhelmed, he tells them to “heal themselves.”
Act 1 ends with Judas, priests Annas (Kevin Hurlbut), and Caiaphas (David Richardson), and the chorus singing the rousing, “Damned for All Time/Blood Money,” and Judas accepts his 30 pieces of silver.
Priests seem always to be dressed in long black gowns. Ralph Hoy gets around this stereotype by outfitting them with multi-lensed eyewear that looks like something out of “The Matrix” (or an optometrist’s office), which are not only inventive, but extraordinary and effectively sinister.
Outstanding actors are David Richardson as Caiaphas, the head priest. Richardson intones in his basso profundo, singing with Annas the above number, and with other priests (Joey Alvarado, David Herrera, and Jack Landseadel) “This Jesus Must Die,” and more. Pablo Soriano gives a believable performance as the wide-eyed, intimidated, burdened apostle, Peter, who denies Jesus in “Peter’s Denial” in a scene with Maid by the Fire (Elizabeth Castaneda), Mary, and old man, and a soldier. Another is Spencer Peterson as Herod, playing the king as only Spencer Peterson can: as a heavily made up, top-hatted, flamboyant gay dude in tights and a huge brown leather cod-piece straight out of an early Roman comedy. He dances, prances, and jumps around the cabaret-like set singing, “King Herod’s Song (Try it and See)” with the dancing girls, prostitutes and chorus.
After Judas’s suicide (Judas, Annas, Caiaphas, and the Chorus sing the dirge, “Judas ‘s Death”), he appares to Jesus as a vision in a tuxedo- jacket open revealing his bare chest- black bow tie, and red suspenders. He, the Soul Girls, Dancers, and Angels dance and sing “Superstar.” Brilliant! The staging of Jesus’ crucifixion (“The Crucifixion,” Jesus, Mary, the ‘apostles), is beautiful. Enhanced by Kelly’s lighting- light beams fan out behind Jesus like searchlights, he appears in silhouette, arms out-stretched.
Each actor, including priests, Herod, Pilate, and the apostles play more than one role. Exceptions are Jesus, Judas, Mary Magdalene, and Caiaphas. That said, each sprechstimme-singing or singing actor is believable in his or her role.
One problem with a large cast is ensuring that everyone is invested in the story and its principles. An audience is aware when this doesn’t happen; it feels it; something is off. I didn’t sense this at all. Each actor gives his or her all to make “Jesus Christ Superstar” a success. The singing and acting in this production is some of the best I’ve seen in a musical.
April 26-28 are its final performances, so don’t miss it.
Diego Rivera Theatre on the City College of SF campus, Gennessee @ Judson, or Phelan and Judson. Go to City College of SF website, click on index, scroll down to Theatre Arts Department current productions for more information.