Reviewed by Laura Caton
To put it reductively but accurately, Jesus Christ Superstar is a good musical. Just hearing the name is enough to get the title song stuck in your head. The show is full of catchy tunes, memorable characters, and a thought-provoking reinterpretation of the greatest story ever told.
There’s a lot of good work being done with this good musical in Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s production, currently playing in the Gargaro Theater in the West End. The show does face a few logistical challenges, and I can’t say I understand every artistic choice it makes. Yet, it is a timely and enjoyable rendition of a classic.
On the off-chance you’re not already familiar with the plot, Jesus Christ Superstar is, as the title indicates, about Jesus and the fervor surrounding him, specifically the final days of his life: Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the crucifixion. Perhaps more than most musicals of its kind, the story lives and dies based on the charisma and talent of its cast—these are larger-than-life characters, and they sing larger-than-life notes—and PMT’s cast has both in spades.
The sheer and literal range of talent on the Gargaro Theater stage is impressive, ranging from the window-rattlingly deep notes of Andy Saehan Shin as Caiaphas to the soothing mezzo of Callee Miles as Mary Magdalene to the cathartic falsettos of David Toole as Judas Iscariot and Brecken Newton Farrell as Jesus of Nazareth. The entire cast brings a commitment and energy to the show that supports the compelling story.
It’s difficult to choose particular cast members to highlight since they’re excellent across the board. Still, I especially appreciated the wry amusement, somewhere between Hugh Hefner and Noel Coward, that Shin brought to Caiaphas. Quinn Patrick Shannon‘s hilarious comic relief as a yuppie-inspired King Herod; Miles’s heart-wrenching turn as Magdalene; and Paul Binotto‘s ominous yet sympathetic Pontius Pilate.
Above all, I was impressed by Toole and Farrell as the show’s leading men. Individually, they bring the pathos and humanity needed to ground their characters and make them relatable despite their high-stakes journeys. Together, they generate the simultaneous love and antagonism that drive the show. Farrell, in particular, is tasked not only with the success of his musical numbers but with an intimidatingly physical performance (via the fight direction by J. Alex Noble) as Jesus is subjected to the violent whims of his captors.
Unfortunately, the cast’s talent is not always matched by other elements of the production. Some of this is due to unavoidable logistical issues. When the entire ensemble is present, for example, the stage is crowded almost to distraction. More frustratingly, the night I saw the show, there seemed to be some technical difficulties with the sound. The cast’s voices were often drowned out by the accompaniment in the louder numbers.
Some of the artistic choices are at odds with the atmosphere of the show itself. The production moves at a brisk pace, which keeps up the energy but makes it difficult to fully appreciate some of its quieter emotional moments. I found myself wanting more stillness and silence, particularly in the second act, to process everything I was experiencing.
I couldn’t quite make sense of the production’s overall approach to the show, which in some ways felt fresh and in other ways felt predictable. In the second category, for example, is the fact that every instance of sin and temptation, from Herod’s song to Judas’s suicide to Jesus’s clearing of the Temple, is prominently accompanied by female dancers in sparse outfits. The dancers are incredibly talented in their performances of the excellent choreography by Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique. But juxtaposed with a rebellious and thought-provoking story, the choice to represent temptation in this way comes across as a tired metaphor. In a show notably light on female characters, to begin with, I wanted to see a more revolutionary way of incorporating women into the proceedings.
In a different but related example, Grant Braden‘s casting as one of the three dancers representing Vices (alongside Ava Esposito and Olivia Tarchick) is an unexpected and refreshing choice. However, he is ultimately given less to do than his counterparts. Throughout the show, there are missed opportunities to make more choices along these lines and bring similarly fresh perspectives, which ultimately makes the production’s tone feel, at times, uneven.
But even with a few minor bumps in the road, the PMT production does justice to its source material. PMT presents an incarnation of Superstar that will satisfy those already familiar with the show and intrigue those experiencing it for the first time. It runs now through May 1—just in time to bring a little rock ‘n’ roll to your Easter celebrations.
PMT’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar runs through May 1st. For more information and tickets visit: https://pmt.culturaldistrict.org/production/77532/jesus-christ-superstar