Paramount's 'Superstar' delivers potent revival of classic rock opera
The timing for Paramount Theatre's revival of "Jesus Christ Superstar" was just a bit off. Previews for Tim Rice's and Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock opera chronicling Jesus of Nazareth's final days -- from the entry into Jerusalem through the crucifixion -- began just after Easter.
What if the run didn't align with the holiday? Paramount's all African-American production, under director/choreographer Ron Kellum, certainly aligns with the push for diversity and inclusion within the theater community.
Indeed, Kellum and his potent ensemble, by their skill and their presence, claim ownership of this musical and its story in a powerful way. Because they do, it makes several small distractions and a missed opportunity all the more perplexing.
The missed opportunity came in the gut-wrenching trial before Pontius Pilate and the subsequent flogging, during which the chorus sang offstage. Disembodied voices work, I suppose, if the goal is to make the audience complicit in Jesus' ruin. It's not unusual for people to embrace then reject a leader according to their own self-interest.
But eliminating the presence of the chorus on stage (perhaps to effect costume changes) diminishes the scene's power. It takes away a human component that lends the scene urgency. Confronted by determined priests and an unruly horde, Pilate has no choice but to sacrifice an innocent to preserve the peace.
Yet, there is much to admire about Paramount's production, beginning with Evan Tyrone Martin's purposeful, expressive, splendidly sung Jesus of Nazareth. Martin's bravura turn comes in the searing "Gethsemane" depicting Jesus' agony in the garden preceding his arrest. His voice captivates, but it's the transformation in his eyes and expression -- that moment when torment and doubt give way to acceptance and faith -- that stops the show.
Equally impressive is powerhouse Mykal Kilgore as the increasingly apprehensive Judas Iscariot, who urges Jesus to temper his rhetoric and reign in his followers to avoid the Romans' wrath.
Judas, along with his fellow apostles, objects to the presence of the devoted Mary Magdalene, played by Felicia Boswell, a lovely singer who possesses the requisite R&B flourishes. Significantly, Kellum places Mary at Jesus' right hand during The Last Supper, marking her as an integral member of Jesus' inner circle.
Dressed in a mini-tunic and sporting a gold-tipped mohawk, Avionce Hoyles embraces with gleeful abandon the role of the decadent Herod, who -- in the musical's delectably campy "King Herod's Song" -- offers Jesus his freedom in exchange for a miracle.
The nicely impassive Lorenzo Rush Jr. uses his basso profundo to excellent effect as Caiaphas, the high priest who fears Jesus will usurp him and his order. Wielding absolute authority in this ancient regime is Pontius Pilate, played with stately reserve by Rufus Bonds Jr. A commanding presence, Bonds credibly projects the conflict and ambivalence within Pilate, who comprehends -- better than everyone save Jesus -- the profound impact of his actions.
Conductor Tom Vendafreddo and co-music director and associate conductor Kory Danielson keep the production on solid ground musically. Predictably, Vendafreddo's 14-member orchestra savors every note of Webber's funk-rock score from the organ licks and bursts of brass to the deliciously nasty, 1970s-era guitars.
The action unfolds on a Kevin Depinet set, which lighting designer Greg Hofmann bathes in a palette ranging from muted brights to murky grays, though smoke in several scenes is a bit of a distraction. A combination Roman forum and temple, its scarred pillars suggest the end of an era is at hand.
And a new one is about to begin.
"Jesus Christ Superstar"★ ★ ★
Location: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, (630) 896-6666 or paramountaurora.com
Showtimes: 1:30 and 7 p.m. Wednesday; 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday; through May 28
Running time: About two hours, with intermission
Parking: Limited street parking; paid lots nearby
Rating: For teens and older