His best friend betrayed him. His followers can’t understand his message. His Father needs him to die to fulfill his mission. This is Jesus and this is the story of his last week of life in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, currently playing at the Sioux Empire Community Theatre.
There are certain shows that I hold to higher standards due to my affinity for them. Jesus Christ Superstar is one of those shows and after the first act, the Sioux Empire Community Theatre’s production had eclipsed nearly all of my standards. This show is incredible!! It’s got tip top acting, stellar singing, inventive choreography, outstanding technical elements, and spot on direction. This particular production has entered my top 10 of the best shows I’ve seen and my top 3 of the best out of state shows I have reviewed.
Eric Parrish takes on the demanding task of serving as both director and musical director of this show and is superb in both roles. Parrish’s band (Garret Hansen, Tyson Conn, Trace Mahoney, Royce Kuenzli, and Rod Jerke) starts off red hot and just gets hotter as the night goes on as they never miss a trick or note of this legendary score. Parrish’s direction is simply a thing of beauty. He has set the show in a post-apocalyptic society where Jesus’ disciples, the Pharisees, and the Romans are depicted as rival gangs which I found positively inspired. His staging is phenomenal and exhausting. Static this show is not as his actors hurtle about the stage non-stop. He also knows how to pull the very best out of his actors as I couldn’t find a weak link in the lot.
The supporting cast does excellent work as they enhance the show with their reactions, but they also acted through the scene changes which was crucial to keeping the show’s energy up. Standout performances include Dennis Berger as Peter and Devin Basart as Annas. Berger has a bright, light tenor that I could listen to all day and really shone in “Could We Start Again, Please?”. Basart is a wonderful bootlicking lackey to the high priest whose operatic tenor soared in “This Jesus Must Die” and “Blood Money”.
Darren Lee’s take on Judas Iscariot has to be seen to be believed. He presents Judas as a man whose relationship with Jesus has been frayed to the final thread. He still respects Jesus, but he thinks Jesus is leading them all to their deaths due to his delusions of grandeur of being God’s son. I loved how he skulked about in the darkness, glaring at Jesus whenever he did something with which Judas disagreed. So realistic was the tension that I almost thought that Judas was going to slug Jesus at a couple of points. Lee also ably portrays the regret and guilt of Judas after he betrays Jesus.
Lee also has a monstrously powerful tenor. His voice is reminiscent of a young Meat Loaf as he belts out power numbers with “Heaven On Their Minds”, “Damned for All Time”, and “Superstar”.
What words could I use to describe Raine Jerke’s rendition of Jesus? Mind blowing. Staggering. Powerful. Haunting. Good words to be certain, but they seem to fall short of the true awesomeness of his work. I was gobsmacked to find out that Jerke has very little acting experience as he has an ease and naturalness equivalent to an actor with years of experience. His expressions are pitch perfect. His reactions deadly accurate. His acting so nuanced as he swings between love for his followers in “Poor Jerusalem” to boiling frustration with them in “The Last Supper” and the extreme agony and fear of his death in “Gethsemane”. So moving was that last number, that tears welled up in my eyes.
Jerke’s singing voice is astonishing. His soaring tenor captured every tiny emotional beat of every number and managed to hit the nearly inhuman falsettos required of the role without popping a sweat.
Jenn Evanson Lee is wonderfully sweet as Mary Magdalene. Her work is admirable as she portrays Mary as Jesus’ most loyal disciple. Indeed she is the only one who actually tries to give Jesus the comfort and support he needs instead of just taking from him. She also has a fabulous soprano which ranged from soothingly calm in “Everything’s Alright” to emotionally puzzled as she wrestles with her own feelings for Jesus in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”.
James Van Oort radiates menace and authority as the high priest, Caiaphas. This is truly a dangerous man and not someone you want as an enemy. His deep and mighty bass driving home those points in “This Jesus Must Die”, “Hosanna”, and “Trial Before Pilate”.
I rather liked Rick Weiland’s original take on Pontius Pilate. His first appearance is the only time we see him without his mask and he is a decent and just man puzzling over his dream about the Nazorean (“Pilate’s Dream). In all of his other appearances, it’s clear that his authority is in his position as he lacks the confidence to withstand the extreme pressure the Pharisees are putting on him to crucify Jesus.
Neil Simons’ lights were the best I have ever seen in a show. His lights were almost separate characters enhancing every moment of the show. I was especially impressed with how they would go red or dark whenever evil seemed to be getting the best of Jesus. Kathryn Pope’s costumes were amazing. Keeping with the gang mentality, you had the leather jackets of Jesus’s crew and the suits and sunglasses of the Pharisees. What I found most intriguing was that every character wore black to symbolize the darkness they were in while Jesus wore an off white shirt showing him as the light of the world. Tiffany Koppes’ choreography was highly entertaining and inventive, especially her hilarious routine for “King Herod’s Song”. I also adored Brad Waltman’s crumbling Colosseum set.
There were a few minor glitches in the show. Some microphone issues cropped up in Act II and a little of the dancing could have been smoother, but these tiny things pale in comparison to the sheer magnificence of the show. As the house was nearly full, I suspect a monster hit is on the hands of the Sioux Empire Community Theatre. I heartily recommend getting a ticket before it’s too late.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays at the Sioux Empire Community Theatre through May 21. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $30 and can be obtained by calling the box office at 605-360-4800 or visit www.siouxfallstheatre.com. The Sioux Empire Community Theatre is located at 315 N Phillips Ave in Sioux Falls, SD.