Sioux Empire Community Theatre Presents ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

Jesus Christ Superstar

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Lyrics by Tim Rice

Location:  Sioux Empire Community Theatre (315 N Phillips Ave, Sioux Falls, SD)

Performance Dates:  May 5-21 (Showtimes are 7pm Thurs-Sat, 2pm on Sun)

Ticket Prices:  $30

Box Office:  605-360-4800 or visit www.siouxfallstheatre.com

Description

It seems especially fitting that the first rock opera, created as a concept album at the end of the turbulent ’60s, should have at its center a social and political rebel. Jesus’ meteor-like rise in renown provides, as the title suggests, a parallel to contemporary celebrity worship. As his radical teachings are evermore embraced, Judas increasingly questions the enlightened motives of this new prophet, resulting in betrayal. Christ’s final days are dramatized with emotional intensity, thought-provoking edge and explosive theatricality. Propelled by a stirring score, by turns driving and majestic, satirical and tender, Jesus Christ Superstar illuminates the transcendent power of the human spirit with a passion that goes straight to the heart.

Cast

Raine Jerke as Jesus

Ryan Harr as Judas

Jenn Lee as Mary Magdalene

Rick Weiland as Pilate

James C. Van Oort as Caiaphas

Devin Basart as Annas

Darren Lee as Peter

Paul Ridgway as Simon

Robin Byrne as Herod

Abigail Chapdelaine and Lenora Hintze as the Soul Girls

Ensemble features Tyler Johnson, Dennis H. Berger, Landon Javers, Brandon Tople, Megan Davis, and Cecily Fogarty

They Give the Gift of Laughter

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Noah Diaz (above), Jonathan Purcell (left), and Bill Grennan (right) star in The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged) at the Blue Barn Theatre.

There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned Christmas pageant and this is nothing like a good old-fashioned Christmas pageant.  This is The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged) by Reed Martin & Austin Tichenor and is currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Once more, the Blue Barn presents a piece of metafiction as Bill Grennan, Noah Diaz, and Jonathan Purcell play embellished versions of themselves trying to salvage the Annual Holiday Variety Show and Christmas Pageant at St. Everybody’s Non-Denominational Universalist Church after a winter storm prevents all of the show’s acts from appearing.  Martin & Tichenor’s script walks a fine line between inspired genius and haphazard mess.  Martin & Tichenor rely on considerably more improvisation and audience participation than I’ve normally seen in scripts of this type.  In the hands of less capable actors and directors this show could easily fall on its face.  Luckily, this show has the benefit of the strong guiding hand of Randall T. Stevens and his trio of gifted comics to make the most out of this spectacle.

Feigning chaos is difficult.  Mimicking that sense of frustration, desperation, and flat out being lost requires a fine touch and Randall T. Stevens provides that touch with confident, surefire direction.  At no point did I doubt that his actors were not making up stuff off the tops of their heads and his staging is quite crafty as his performers make full use of the theatre as they vainly try to cobble together a watchable show.

Bill Grennan is a raging doofus and a hammy overactor.  Those are indeed compliments.  Grennan presents himself as a somewhat naïve waif who loves everything about Christmas, but is pretty oblivious to the world around him.  Whether he’s singing a racist version of White Christmas which goes over his head because he prefers music to lyrics or letting his cohorts hold an excessively long note because he interrupts a song for a speech, Grennan consistently proves himself to not be the brightest bulb on the tree.

The energy Grennan throws out is unbelievable as he maintains a frenetic pace throughout the show as he races about the theatre and especially when he indulges in scene chewing luxury as King Herod in an English panto about the Nativity.  Grennan also has a great light tenor voice as he leads the audience through a unique version of The Twelve Days of Christmas, a terrific medley of Christmas songs, and a rousing version of Jingle Bells.

Jonathan Purcell plays the stick in the mud of the group.  His exaggerated self is an ultra Christian with a pathological fear of Santa Claus and is quite hypocritical with his constant judging of others, referring to Grennan as a pagan, and growing angry when a holiday greeting other than Merry Christmas is used.

Purcell has comedic timing that simply cannot be taught.  He shines as a very Jewish Mary in the Nativity sequence, is quite a strong percussionist playing bells and xylophone in Jingle Bells, slays in a dual performance with Grennan as the Rat King in a miniature ballet version of The Nutcracker, and does an expert job of seeming like he has several rods shoved up his back at all times.

Noah Diaz brings his own strong comedic chops to bear by interpreting himself as a greedy little slob.  For him, Christmas is all about the getting as he pines for high dollar Christmas gifts, tries to steal gifts from a gift exchange, and cons his two friends out of money by pretending to be collecting for the Salvation Army.  Diaz excels in high energy farce especially in a signature number extolling the virtues of Mrs. Claus as he laments about an overall lack of strong women in Christmas.  Diaz does need to keep his projection up as I lost his lines on a few occasions when he dropped his volume.

I give this show an A+ on the technical side of things.  I absolutely loved Martin Scott Marchitto’s simple set of Christmas tree, gifts, and cutouts of Santa, fireplace, and Nativity.  Carol Wisner’s lighting was festive and always apropos to the moments of the show.  Melissa Penkava Koza’s costumes were perfect and outrageously funny, especially a getup for Grennan when he misinterprets gay apparel complete with Juicy shorts and a, ahem, well placed piece of mistletoe.  Craig Marsh does it again with pitch perfect Christmas sounds that hit the mark for the holiday season.

Some of the improvised jokes fizzled and the audience participation scenes will always hinge on how creative and on the ball that particular crowd is, but this rather zany and irreverent show will provide some deep belly laughs and a truly good time at the Blue Barn this holiday season due to the amazingly talented trio running amok.

The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged) plays at the Blue Barn through December 18.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm.  Additional performances will be held on Dec 7 and 14 at 7:30pm and at 2pm on December 4 and 17-18.  Please note that performances on Dec 2-3, 9-11, 16 and the 6pm show on Dec 17 are sold out.  Ticket prices are $30 for adults $25 for students, seniors (65+), T.A.G. members, or groups of 10 or more.  For reservations call 402-345-1576 from 10am-4pm Mon-Fri or visit www.bluebarn.org.  Parental discretion is advised for this production.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  During intermission, stop and visit the Giving HeART’s Tree in the Blue Barn lobby.  The Blue Barn is partnering with ENOA (Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging) to bring a Merry Christmas to the elderly in eastern Nebraska.  A $20 donation to ENOA will allow you to select an ornament from the Giving HeART’s Tree and your $20 will be used to buy gift cards for the elderly in eastern Nebraska.  For some, it will be the only gift they receive.  Please be generous this holiday season.

Cotton Patch is Fun, but Flawed

It’s the Gospel of Matthew told Southern style.  This is Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Key & Russel Treyz with music by Harry Chapin and inspired by a novel from Clarence Jordan.  This musical will have your feet tapping, your hands clapping, and your fingers snapping throughout the night and is currently playing at the Howmet Playhouse.

This musical has long been a personal favorite of mine, though I imagine many have not heard of it.  It was a big hit when it first came out in 1982 and even netted a Los Angeles Dramalogue nomination for Best Actor for Tom Key (who also co-wrote the script).  From an epic score by Harry Chapin to the vibrant, colorful characters created by Key and Treyz, Cotton Patch Gospel has all of the elements for a hit show.  I had long hoped for the opportunity to see this play and when I discovered it would be produced at the Howmet Playhouse, I drove 16 ½ hours to see it live.

No, that was not a misprint.

I drove 16 ½ hours to watch this show and it was well worth the drive.  Backed by a powerful quartet of musicians, the 5 person cast, under the direction of Debra Freeberg, provided a very entertaining night of theatre.  Ms Freeburg is to be complimented for some very creative and inventive directing, though there were beats that could have been delved into more deeply.  She also coached solid to excellent performances from her cast.  I was also intrigued by the use of a small cast.  Tom Key wrote the play so it could be performed as a one man show or a full scale production, but this is the first time I have seen a small cast used and that decision worked very well indeed.

Steven Barre was one of the two standout performers of the night.  Barre has a good sense of body language and voice as he easily switched between the humble, but harried, Joe (Jesus’ stepfather), the arrogant and dangerous, Governor Herod, and the conflicted Jud, who ultimately betrays Jesus.  Barre is a very animated actor and his energy and enthusiasm added greatly to his work which was a treat for the eyes and ears.  My only criticism is that Barre’s take on John the Baptizer was too restrained and he needs to let loose and go full force with the zealous preacher.

Barre also has a wonderful 2nd tenor singing voice which was capable of subtle and rich nuances.  From the cold-blooded gloating of Herod’s arranging the murder of innocent children (I Did It) to the sad Joe wondering why Jesus won’t see him (You Are Still My Boy) to a jubilant Apostle (Jubilation), Barre proved himself to be a well rounded performer and a great asset for the show.

Brianna June Clark was the other standout performer of the night.  Ms June Clark had a beautiful, clear soprano singing voice and she knows how to find the emotional beats of a song.  From a soulful, haunting number from a mother who cannot accept the death of her child (Mama is Here) to a wistful dream that Jesus wasn’t dead (One More Tomorrow), Ms June Clark knocked one musical pitch after another out of the park.

She was also just as adept on the acting side of things.  Ms June Clark has an incredible presence and excellent facial expressions along with a good sense of improv.  Whether she was the slightly befuddled Andy, the menacing Governor Pilate, or the Virgin Mary, Ms June Clark was, quite simply, an utter delight.  She also had the funniest moment of the night with her audible nausea at the sight of the victim when Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.

I wish the show had more than a one weekend run as I sensed a great deal of potential in the performances of Alex Cooke and Annie Bulthuis which could be realized with a longer run.  Both gave solid performances, but they needed a bit of fine tuning.

Both (and the rest of the cast at various points) needed to project more and talk louder to overcome the nearly black box nature of the theatre’s acoustics.  They also need to slow down their delivery a bit and focus a bit more on the beats and nuances of their dialogue.  A lot of humorous lines and dramatic moments didn’t get the emphasis they needed due to their rushing the lines.  I understand that the entire rehearsal process only lasted two weeks which isn’t enough time to get into the grit and gristle of a script.  So they deserve kudos for the solid foundation they developed with their limited preparation time.

Ms Bulthuis has a skillful alto voice which she put to good use in numbers such as “Love the Lord Your God” and “We Gotta Get Organized”.  She also has one of the most expressive faces I have ever seen.  With a slight cock of her eyebrow or a tiny purse of her lips, I was able to follow the thoughts of Ms Bulthuis’ characters without her uttering a single word.  I also thought her interpretation of Rock as slightly less than intelligent to be a very fine and funny bit of acting.

Cooke’s 2nd tenor voice also demonstrated a knack for subtle shades of emotion.  His primary role was that of Jesus and his portrayal of Jesus’ fears and sadness at his imminent lynching in “Goin’ to Atlanta” was not only spot on, but had me shedding a few tears as well.

Though he has no lines, Tim Todd does have a good grasp of pantomime which allowed him to tell his own story and kept him involved in each moment of the show.

There were a few technical flaws during the night.  There was some wicked feedback coming from a speaker at a few points and the actors’ microphones were either failing or their volume was constantly adjusted throughout the show.

Musical Director, Karen Burek, and her Band (Josh Bourdon, Alex Johnson, David Russell, and Lare Williams) do superior work with their stellar musicianship and flawless playing.  Tom Klonowski’s light design was award worthy and Jessica Reilly’s bare bones set was a thing of beauty.

In spite of a few flaws which I believe could be easily overcome with a longer run, Cotton Patch Gospel was an inspiring, moving, and entertaining night of theatre and I want to thank the cast and crew of this show for making my epic journey to see it a worthwhile one.

Cotton Patch Gospel has one final performance on Saturday, August 8 at 7:30pm.  Tickets range from $16 to $20 and can be obtained in person at the Box Office or by calling them at 231-894-2540 one hour before showtime.  They can also be obtained at their website, www.howmetplayhouse.org.  The Howmet Playhouse is located at 304 S Mears Ave in Whitehall, MI.

Superstar Soars

From the first notes of Jim Boggess and his superlative orchestra, you will be catapulted on an amazing journey for the eyes, ears, and heart as you experience the last week of Jesus’ life told in the style of a rock opera.  This is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This is, by far, the best musical ever mounted on an Omaha stage and Kimberly Faith Hickman deserves a standing ovation of her own for an extraordinary display of direction and choreography.  Never is there a wasted beat, nuance, or moment and you will be riveted to this incredibly powerful story from beginning to end.  It has been updated so that the tale now takes place in modern times which I believe strengthens its relevance.  Jesus and his followers are now street people living in a derelict shantytown while Pilate and the high priests are well dressed businessmen.  Lydia Dawson’s masterful costuming and Jim Othuse’s deceptively simple set perfectly catch the mood of this update.

This is one of those shows where I truly wish I’d be able to single out every performer individually in a review, but for the sake of brevity, let me say that this cast is phenomenal.  Each and every one is always in the moment and exudes an incredible amount of energy that helps propel the show to unimaginable heights.  Among the talented ensemble were a few standout performances that deserve special notice such as Zach Kloppenborg’s portrayal of the obsequious, irritating suck up Annas.   His whining tenor wonderfully grates on your nerves throughout the night.  Jimmy Nguyen’s Peter was a surprising delight as his strong, supple singing voice completely belies his slight frame.  Jerry Van Horn rules the stage as King Herod as he smarmily tries to get Jesus to prove his divinity in “Herod’s Song”.

Roderick Cotton is a marvel as Jesus’ betrayer, Judas Iscariot.  Oddly enough, he is actually the centerpiece of this story as it is told from his point of view.  Cotton makes for a surprisingly sympathetic Judas as he is Jesus’ right hand man, but fears things are getting out of control now that people believe that Jesus is the son of God (Heaven on Their Minds) while he is convinced Jesus is just a wise teacher.  Cotton’s powerful tenor is capable of capturing a wide range of emotion from sneering superiority as he blasts Mary Magdalene for anointing Jesus with expensive ointment in “Everything’s Alright” to desperation as he feels compelled to betray Jesus for his own good in “Damned for All Time/Blood Money” to anger as he confronts Jesus at “The Last Supper”.

Cotton is also a treat to watch in his silent moments as his expressions are crystal clear and tell a story all of their own.  Not only is it a striking performance, I believe it has the potential to be an award winning one at the end of the season.

John Gajewski handles the role of Jesus with grace and aplomb.  His dynamite tenor reaches searing and soaring falsettos that would make Ted Neeley proud.  Gajewski’s Jesus really emphasizes his human nature and reminds us that Jesus felt the same emotions as every other person.  Rarely have I heard such subtle, outstanding nuance in a voice as Gajewski glides from tender love and hope for his followers to understand the truth of his mission in “Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem”, to supreme confidence in his message in “Hosanna”, to fury at the desecration of his Father’s house in “The Temple”, to frustration with his followers not getting it in “The Last Supper”, and caps it off with a haunting acceptance of his death in “Gethsemane”.

Gajewski’s expressions and body language are just as subtle.  Particularly telling were the weariness in his face when he accepts his destiny in “Gethsemane” and his pained suffering as he is scourged in “Trial by Pilate”.  Both moments had me searching for a tissue.

Many experienced performers would be envious of the stage presence and confidence possessed by young Roni Shelley Perez who plays Mary Magdalene.  Her sweet soprano captures utter devotion to Jesus as she comforts him in “Everything’s Alright”, a perplexed confusion in her dominating solo “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, and a slow understanding of the truth of Jesus in “Could We Start Again, Please?”  Her performance was one of the night’s many highlights.

Also spectacular were Cork Ramer as the high priest, Caiphas, and Michael Markey as Pontius Pilate.  Ramer’s flawless bass exudes a dark menace as he plots to eliminate Jesus in “Jesus Must Die” and a mocking congratulations and thank you to Judas in “Judas’ Death”.  Markey’s facile baritone paints a picture of a man reluctant to execute the innocent Jesus, but who finally buckles under the extreme pressure in “Trial by Pilate”.

A few minor missteps in diction, projection, and dancing did not distract from this entrancing, beautiful, and moving night of theatre.  As Saturday’s sellout crowd indicates, this show is already morphing into a massive success.  Get a ticket before it’s too late to see this epic hit and potential awards season darling.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs until April 4 at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  Showtimes are 7:30pm Wed-Sat and 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets cost $40 for adults and $25 for students.  Contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.