Jesus Christ Superstar at Third Wall Productions

Andrea Rudai

TheatreBloom rating:

What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s a-happening! What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s a-happening? Jesus Christ Superstar! That’s what’s a-happening! At Third Wall Productions— in temporary residence at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Towson— and it’s shaking down the bricks of the temple— well, the church, at any rate. Directed by Mike Zellhofer with Musical Direction by Daniel Plante, this iconic story of the man of the bible is existing in its finest and purest essence: a story told through song with Third Wall Productions.

The cast of Jesus Christ Superstar at Third Wall Productions
The cast of Jesus Christ Superstar at Third Wall Productions Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom

Their sets are all but non-existent (though Pat Rudai deserves a nod for the cross featured at the show’s end) and the costumes are simplistic (compliments of Amy Rudai and Mea Holloway) but you don’t need enormous sets or fancy clothes to tell the story of Jesus Christ Superstar, in fact this minimalist approach, driven by the community theatre’s humble budget, allows the production to get out of its own way and let the story be heard. Setting the show inside a church where the primary action happens up on the altar is a simple symbolic solution to bringing a strong resonance of the message home to the audience that much more readily.

Director Mike Zellhofer, who takes up the commanding, albeit weary and wary role of Pontius Pilate, utilizes the full space, drawing the audience into the happenings as if we were attending the temple itself. When Jesus is dragged off by the guards, he’s raked down the aisles between the pews. When the lepers crawl and shuffle to the temple during “The Temple” it’s a harrowing feat to watch these almost zombie-like rabid creatures tossing their torsos and limbs up the main pew aisle. Zellhofer takes advantage of the church’s natural acoustics and using the full space enhances the sound of the production, in addition to the body mics featured on principal soloists.

There are many other such moments— like when the initial temple scene gets underway and all the ensemble descend upon those seated in the pews to entice them with sin— wherein the audience is in the throbbing throng and pulsing pace of the show as if it were happening around them. This is in part thanks to Zellhofer’s staging and part to Musical Director Daniel Plante’s approach to augmenting harmony lines among those with powerful voices. Sounds swell up from the back of the house during “Hosanna”, washing over the audience like a great wave of praise. This is augmented tenfold by Pit Conductor Andrew Zile and hi natural ability to balance the volume, tempo, and overall quality of the live orchestra’s sound, which is only partially masked by a black curtain far upstage.

Sing Hosanna and praise to Choreographer Kristin Rigsby, who puts a finesse on the moments of dance that supersedes the call of duty when it comes to Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s the little moments that Rigsby creates, like the masked dancers of sin (including herself and performers Jillian Arnold, Grace Dillon, Andrea Rudai, Brooklyn Ritter, and Grace Volpe {with Kali Baklor alternating in other ‘dance corps’ featured routines}) just at the top of the second act. Rigsby utilizes those with extreme dancing skill in these moments, showcasing her versatility as a choreographer as well as their abilities and dancers and uses more simplistic steps and routines for those who do not have a dancer’s vocabulary and ability pulsating through their core. The bigger routines, which feature the majority of the ensemble, are simple yet energetic and reflect the upbeat tempos of the music, heightening the overall sense of energy that comes with the show.

What’s most impressive about this production is the way the actors invest in the nuances of their characters. The terrible trio of Priest (Brian Becker), Annas (Harper Craven) and Caiaphas (Tony Singer) are well blended in their harmonies, but it’s Craven’s character who comes off as the maniacal villain rather than Caiaphas. Singer takes the character with a wary and almost cautionary approach, making it look as if the seedy and corrupted Annas has turned his mind to the persecution of Jesus. All of these subtleties are witnessed first-hand right on their faces because of the intimate play space upon the church altar. The same can be said of Zellhofer’s Pilate, a much wearied and worried characterization coming forth in his careworn facial expressions, particularly during “Pilate’s Dream.” Of course taking strides in the opposite direction is Thomas Rendulic, embodying all the flamboyance of hedonism incarnate as King Herod. The makeup alone is worth a dozen sinful laughs but the extravagant manner with which he affects Herod for “King Herod’s Song” is just too funny to put properly into words.

Both Simon (Chip Willett) and Peter (Andrew Pedrick) are firm of character and strong of voice, with Pedrick’s character having a brutal moment of doubt and disloyalty during “Peter’s Denial.” Watch his facial expressions closely as he performs the age old denial of the bible, and the way in which he responds to Mary’s questioning of his behavior. Willett, with a thunderous roar of spirit, tackles the song “Simon Zealotes” with a rigor that rocks the rafters. There is a vocal strength which Willett possesses that is much like the rock of Peter when it comes to grounding and founding that song in the spirit of and glory of Jesus.

Mea Holloway is the Balm in Gilead with her portrayal of Mary Magdalene. With a cool, dulcet sound for “Everything’s Alright” her vocal anointment soothes the troubled soul of Jesus. Using her flawless vocal control to overcome her lack of microphone (which to be completely honest she doesn’t need anyhow as she possesses that much natural strength and volume control), Holloway coaxes a calmness from her core and delivers it to the depths of Jesus’ doubting constitution in this number and in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” The transformation that overtakes Mary’s character in that number is expressed clear and radiant as heaven’s light in her voice and gentle facial expressions.

Brutal is the Judas (Timoth David Copney) that would betray his Jesus for blood money. Stylish in an indescribable manner, with his cornflower blue top and orange vest and matching sandals, Copney is the crème de la crème in the role of the Betrayer. With rip-roaring rocker vocals that bang out hard emotions during “Heaven on Their Minds”— and even more detrimentally so during “Damned For All Time”— Copney takes the role under his seasoned wings and lets it soar. Holding his own vocally against James Fitzpatrick’s Jesus, Copney goes blow for blow and toe to toe with the emotional upheaval all throughout the challenged Andrew Lloyd Webber score. Emotionally unstable, to the point of a conflagration that destroys him in “Judas’ Death”, Copney wails away and gives a spirited rendition of Judas that is like no other.

Looking every bit like the iconic well-known figure of Jesus, James Fitzpatrick embodies the body of Christ and transforms these songs into an emotional narrative that pounds heavy on the heart. The angry, frustration, desperation, rage, and doubt which are so often neglected in the Jesus character— as he is meant to be the flawless incarnation of God’s only son— are more than present in Fitzpatrick’s portrayal, particularly once the people turn on him. There is a soulful spirit that is ever present in his voice, regardless of which song he’s singing. “Gethsemane” is a haunting and harrowing number that traverses the emotional gauntlet; this is a task that Fitzpatrick achieves in all its radiant and holy glory.

Jesus Christ Superstar— do you think you’re what they say you are? They say—I say— it’s damn impressive and exceptionally spirited. So yes, it’s the buzz, it’s what’s a-happening, and this is the Jesus Christ Superstar to see this summer season; free of artifice, clear of conceptualization: just the story, just talented voices telling the tale in its purest and simplest form.    

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission

Jesus Christ Superstar plays through July 8, 2017 with Third Wall Productions at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church— 1108 Providence Road in Towson, MD. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or in advance online.

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