Not your mother's "Superstar"

Anna Holloway Modified: April 10, 2014 at 8:10 pm •  Published: April 10, 2014
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Oklahoma City Theatre Company’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” takes us far away from the 1970 concept album that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber produced. Director Deborah Draheim-Deppe has set this in a grimly grungy version of a post-apocalyptic world, where we observe a ritualized reconstruction of a passion play.
Brilliantly performed, the production suffers from mild technical issues in the sound system and the occasional miscued light. The design and execution overall rise above these minor issues, and if the audience can hold on for the payoff at the end, they will be well rewarded.
The first half, mostly exposition, starts a little slowly, setting us in the warehouse environment where all the action occurs. A significant part of the production’s context is the understanding that the people we are watching are in a refuge from a world so inhospitable they cannot even breathe without protection and assistance. In this place, using sacred objects from an ark-like box decorated with a fading symbol that fans of the original album will recognize, they assign roles and enact a ritual that is vitally important to them all. Some of the roles are clearly fraught, and the role of “superstar” is obviously already taken.
The show is a challenging piece both because of its subject and because it can be musically rather dated. Draheim-Deppe has avoided both by opening the time frame up to an unknown, damaged future. How would the world behave differently if another Christ arrived? Even more poignantly, how would a lost group of people, trying to recreate some kind of faith, choose to enact the stories of Jesus?
In the title role, Matthew Alvin Brown gives us both a powerful vulnerability and an enraged sacrifice. In the contrapuntal role of Judas, Renee Anderson gives us reasoned support and thoughtful caution. These two, who have worked together before, embody for us the central conflict and central dynamic, and they are Draheim-Deppe’s most brilliant act as a director, and that in a show that is a collection of brilliance.
One of the great beauties in this production is the acknowledgement of Judas as central to the story, and the recognition that salvation, imperfectly executed in this broken world, requires more than one sacrifice.
Jordan DeBose as Simon Zealotes urges revolution with an almost boyishly enthusiastic self-righteousness, even as Caleb Baze’s Peter basks in his status and hangs back at the same time. Amanda Dills’ Mary Magdalene is powerfully sensual, and she and Draheim-Deppe have correctly avoided crass or trite sexual suggestion. Paul Mitchell gives us a pensive Pilate, desperate to avoid the inevitable ending, and Larz Hoban’s Andrew is a charming and enthusiastic follower—until he sees where it’s all going. In the oppressive role of Caiaphas, Josh Irick struggles a little with the demanding range of the music while bringing great presence to the stage.
Music director Jeanise Morton’s powerful band, located inside the set, occasionally overpowers the singers. These are all talented musicians with beautiful voices, but in this show the singing is not “pretty” except in the rare places where a lyrical quality helps to tell the story. The costumes, by returning costumer Brenda Nelson, new designer Allan Deppe’s realistically distressed set, and the lighting design of veteran Scott Hynes all contribute to placing the story in an environment we can believe. The last light on Jesus is almost viscerally evocative of sacrificial grace, and the final spinning spots leave open questions for doubters and believers alike. Those looking for an unusual and gripping passion play cannot do better this year.
Oklahoma City Theatre Company’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar continues through Easter Sunday, with shows Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 and Sunday matinees at 2:00. Contact the box office at 405.297.2264 or at okctheatrecompany.org.