Superb Cast Makes Stage 62’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ a Divine Experience

The 'Superstar' himself, Jesus, played by Jeff Way.

The ‘Superstar’ himself, Jesus, played by Jeff Way.

Pittsburgh is fortunate to have so many top-notch local theater companies. I attended the opening night performance of Jesus Christ Superstar by one of them—Stage 62.

Stage 62 uses the performance space at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie as its company stage. Housed in a magnificent, historic building perched on top of a hill overlooking the town of Carnegie, this smaller music hall with good acoustics gives an added intimacy to the performance. Sight lines are tight and close; dialogue is more discernible. You almost feel immersed in the play. And that is certainly the case with this rendition of Jesus Christ Superstar.

The Broadway Superstar

Many people are familiar with Jesus Christ Superstar as a rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It was actually a concept album turned into a work of theater, which opened its tryout tour here in Pittsburgh on July 12, 1971 at the Civic Arena, then premiered on Broadway in October of that year at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. Webber wrote the music and Rice the lyrics, and Superstar was their first real taste of success. An opera in the sense that all lines are sung, it ran on Broadway until 1980 and has been produced countless times by theater companies around the world. The story is loosely based on the Gospels’ accounts of the last week of Jesus’ life. The show’s added interpretations of feelings and interpersonal dynamics among several characters—including between Jesus and Judas—generated a little controversy at first in the early ’70s. Jesus Christ Superstar was nominated for five Tony Awards in 1972 and in 1973 was made into a film.

The Carnegie Superstar

In Stage 62’s production the set is simple, with an ancient-looking wall to the rear and a double door in the middle. At center stage is a slightly tilted-forward platform that looks somewhat like a king-sized mattress, hard enough for the players to perform most of the action on. The other props are movable sets of stairs that characters mount, descend, and sing from. Lighting is simple and effective, used to help create each scene’s mood.

Judas (Mary Johnson-Blocher) believes Jesus's plan is all wrong and tells him.

Judas (Mary Johnson-Blocher) believes Jesus’s plan is all wrong and tells him.

Playing the title role for Stage 62 is Jeff Way. He is right out of central casting for how we have come to portray Jesus—handsome with slightly long hair and beard—and he excels in the role. When it is time for a quietly sung moment of introspection he achieves that; when a song needs to be belted out he does it with vigor. A powerful scene comes when he questions God in “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).”

As the writing dictates, Way portrays Jesus as a man on a mission, complete with stress and doubt. The most intense scene is, of course, the crucifixion, with Way playing the dying Jesus and dark music accompanying.

Johnson-Blocher as Judas.

Johnson-Blocher as Judas.

For the role of Judas Iscariot the company has veered away from the mainstream, casting a woman—Mary Johnson-Blocher—in the part. She does an extraordinary job, armed with a fine singing voice and very fluid stage movements. Johnson-Blocher is especially fun to watch in “Heaven on Their Minds” and “Superstar.”

Most of the time the cast is dressed simply, in toga-like wraps or long robes with sandals. One big costume change occurs when Johnson-Blocher performs the “Superstar” scene in a sizzlin’ black and red leather contemporary outfit while her Soul Sisters are sporting black leather motorcycle jackets with red Converse high-tops. The garb fits the song, which is sung from a modern perspective and includes one of the show’s more humorous lines: “If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation. Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.”

Mary Magdalene—played by Nina Napoleone—brings moments of quiet loving and care to the story, providing relief to a weary Jesus by singing to him and cooling him off with a wet cloth soaked in soothing oils. Napoleone’s deliciously melodic voice brings to life the popular songs “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Everything’s Alright.”

Way, as Jesus, contemplates his situation.

Way, as Jesus, contemplates his situation.

Other notable performances are Matthew J. Rush as Pontius Pilate, Chris Martin as Peter, and Larissa Jantonio as Annas. All cast members play their roles well. The energetic ensemble often enters and exits the stage, dancing and singing in the aisles, as do the principal actors in several scenes. The ensemble is not only very talented, but also diverse among ages, races, sexes, and body types, which enhances their impact. Each member of the 23-person ensemble is individually miked and it is a sound to behold when they all sing together, combining to create a singular harmonic voice. Two enjoyable numbers involving the lead actors and ensemble are “What’s the Buzz” and “Hosanna.”

Refrains or musical elements from certain Jesus Christ Superstar songs such as “Hosanna,” “Superstar,” “What’s the Buzz,” and “Heaven on Their Minds” are used in other scenes besides the ones they are featured in. And, although the show is a rock opera, other musical influences can be heard including jazz, cabaret, and even some orchestral arrangements. Stage 62’s instrumental music is capably provided by an orchestra situated to the right rear of the stage. Music director Thomas Octave deserves accolades, and director Seamus Ricci has made the entire show run smoothly and seamlessly.

In the 'Temple' scene Jesus dreams that he's healed some of the lepers, cripples, and beggars surrounding him, but more keep coming and he feels overwhelmed.

In the ‘Temple’ scene Jesus dreams that he’s healed some of the lepers, cripples, and beggars surrounding him, but more keep coming and he feels overwhelmed.

Stage 62’s Jesus Christ Superstar is a highly enjoyable performance. Catch it while you can.

A nice touch on opening night was a post-show reception with audience members, cast, crew, and families. Snacks and refreshments were served including a cheesecake buffet supplied by A. Ward’s Cheesecakes of Carnegie in the Library’s Lincoln Gallery, which contains over 40 rare pictures of our past president.

Closing Credits and Ticket Information

Jesus Christ Superstar runs through July 31 at Stage 62 with nightly performances Thursday through Saturday and matinees on Sundays. For ticket information visit Stage 62’s website or call (412) 429-6262. Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, 300 Beechwood Ave., Carnegie.

Photos courtesy of the company.

Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central and enjoys great theater.