Texting isn’t mentioned in the Bible. However, it figures prominently within Jesus of Nazareth’s final days as winningly interpreted in the Epiphany Players Drama Ministry of Epiphany Lutheran Church’s wonderfully contemporary production of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist/librettist Tim Rice’s classic 1971 rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the organization’s 27th annual summer musical.
Directed with stirring immediacy and intensity by Megan Wean Sears, “Jesus Christ Superstar” leaps forth as compelling and thought-provoking as today’s headlines. Set in contentious New York City (representing our currently divisive America), the show first and foremost uncomfortably stings as it should while remaining a cautionary tale of human folly. All the vital events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion and death are colorfully, grippingly and passionately executed by the 61-member cast. However, Sears takes the action to a fascinating new level with the aid of savvy multimedia/projections expertly designed by Bobby Morgan. Part of her artistic intent ponders what it would be like if Jesus was among us now, energizing “a movement of both rebellion and compassion.” In turn, seeing a throng of texts pop up on a big screen in excitable “Dear Evan Hansen”-esque fashion, including “I’m right next to JC,” makes the material feel instantly fresh. By the time apostle Simon Zealotes tweets a call to revolution in Times Square, it is an undeniable hallmark of Sears’ forward-thinking storytelling. And I dare not spoil how a certain cable news network vividly accents the drama or how a certain late night TV talk show host is flavorfully parodied. Bottom line: Sears has created one of the most relevant productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar” the Miami Valley has ever seen.
Still, without credible performances the production would lack true connection. Thankfully, the Epiphany talent pool, double-cast per tradition, delivers once again. Kean Petrello, a pop tenor tailor-made to play the kindhearted Jesus, genuinely exudes warmth, concern and soulfulness throughout. He offers a powerful yet introspective rendition of “Gethsemane” and brings great anger and overwhelming dismay to “The Temple.” As Judas Iscariot, dynamic vocalists Desmond Thomas and Brianna Russ are equally vibrant yet shady antagonists. Even so, due to the sheer rarity of a woman in the role, Russ receives special mention for exploring betrayal, fear, insecurity, and jealousy with marvelous complexity and a fitting punk-rock edge. In addition to jumping octaves like it’s a walk in the park in such numbers as “Heaven on Their Minds,” “Damned for All Time/Blood Money,” “The Last Supper,” “Judas’ Death,” and “Superstar,” the astute choices she makes in the pivotal Jesus-Judas power struggle and conveying Judas’ peculiar distrust and dislike of Mary Magdalene are simply remarkable. As Mary Magdalene, Kara Miller and Laura Jacobs offer beautifully sincere renditions of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” The genteel and introverted Miller interestingly contrasts the more expressive Jacobs, keenly aware of Russ’ vindictive Judas. Justin Matthews and Christian Schaefer excellently stir the conflicted emotions within Pontius Pilate, filling “Pilate’s Dream” with quiet melancholy and injecting ample bewilderment and rage into “Trial By Pilate.” Timmy Seiler and Chris Scharf are playful yet tough as flamboyant showman King Herod in “King Herod’s Song,” the only opportunity for Sears to choreograph with snazzy levity. Bridget Miley and Lily Cutler (Peter) and Meghan Rupper and Andrew Gochenaur (Simon Zealotes) are firmly grounded apostles. (Rice’s decision not to elaborate on Jesus’ relationships with his chosen 12 remains a script shortcoming). Imposing bassists David Egbert and Nick Kress (Caiaphas), crisply stern Rachel Woeste and Margo Russ (Annas), and terrifically menacing Brian Hoff, Kellie Dabb (someone please cast her as Madame Thenardier in “Les Misérables”) and Sam Layman (Priests) are also noteworthy along with lovely featured dancer Marisha Osowski.
Musically, the score drives with urgency under the direction of David Brush and his solid seven-piece offstage band. Some liberties have been taken with the score (the title tune is briefly introduced as a bluesy rock ballad) but these unique choices fuel the production’s character-driven pulse nonetheless. At times, the band sounds more distant than they are, but at the same rate, they don’t overpower the cast either which is an asset. Set designer Tristan Cupp’s gritty, urban vibe, Matthew Benjamin’s reliably evocative lighting, Maria Klueber and Lori Watamainiuk’s astutely assorted attire (casual wear for Jesus and the apostles; traditional biblical garment for Mary Magdalene; sophisticated business wear for the priests; stylish black and purple for Pontius Pilate), and Adrienne Ausdenmoore and Jason Hamen’s props effectively aid the storytelling. Ben Hale and Brayden Rittner’s sound design is unfortunately spotty so the cast should try to sing-out and enunciate more assuredly in order for the audience not to lose any of Rice’s witty lyrics.
If a “radical son of God” actually took this country by storm, a country enamored with cries of fake news and an insatiable desire to follow the latest social media celebrity, it’s not entirely clear how situations would transpire. But if you’re able to witness this “Superstar,” you’ll be treated to profound perspectives about faith, grace, hope, deceit, love, and sacrifice set against the backdrop of current angst that will linger in your mind for years to come. Don’t miss it.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” continues through July 23 at Epiphany Lutheran Church, 6430 Far Hills Ave., Centerville. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Act One and Act Two run roughly 50 minutes. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students and seniors (60 and over), $5 for children (5 and under), and $20 for front row seating. For tickets, call (937) 433-1449 ext. 105. Patrons are advised the show is double-cast (Jeffery Mack covers the role of Jesus). For more information, visit www.epiphanydayton.org or e-mail drama @epiphanydayton.org.