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Theater review: 'Jesus Christ Superstar' from Bay Street Players

Matthew J. Palm
Contact ReporterOrlando Sentinel Theater Critic
Theater review of a modern take on 'Jesus Christ Superstar'

With the celebration of Easter this month, churchgoers recently heard the biblical account of the last days of Jesus Christ.

But "Jesus Christ Superstar" director Sylvia Viles wants her audience's attention focused on the here and now, not the goings-on two millennia ago. That means no togas in her production for the Bay Street Players in Eustis. The rock musical's action plays out against a graffiti-marred backdrop painted with Twitter-friendly slogans such as #JudasCares. Projections display starving African children and the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Putting a modern spin on the 45-year-old show is not unheard of; recent productions have made use of video cameras, flashing LED ticker-tape signs and other contemporary accouterments. And Viles, who also designed the production, has done a fine job of setting the right vibe and creating stylish images onstage.

Unfortunately, her leading players' voices aren't up to the challenge of Andrew Lloyd Webber's demanding score. Many a tenor has over-sung the searing high notes, resulting in a screechy Judas or Jesus. At Bay Street, the actors thankfully avoid that trap but instead rely on falsetto or talk-singing in too many key moments. Coupled with bland, recorded accompaniment, this safe approach removes a lot of the "rock" from "rock musical" — and douses much of the show's fire.

Most know how Jesus was betrayed by Judas, one of his disciples, and sentenced to crucifixion by a conflicted Pontius Pilate (a strong performance by Jonathan Olson). "Superstar" focuses heavily on Judas' mixed emotions, and actor Justin Ortiz has a handle on the betrayer's angst. But he doesn't capture Judas' anger, in part because he doesn't rock out vocally.

As Jesus, Kyle Stone, also seems anger-challenged. This modern, urban setting should allow for a grittier Jesus, but Stone maintains a dispassionate façade. Interestingly, as Jesus approaches death Stone comes more alive, beginning with a nicely delivered "Gethsemane."

Kat Johnson displays the ferocity of Mary Magdalene's devotion to Jesus, but that overwhelms her singing as she bellows her way through Mary's ballads, "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and "Everything's Alright."

A lot is right: The afflicted beseech Jesus for help, and later Judas meets his end in two beautifully theatrical scenes. When an angry mob shoots cellphone video footage of Jesus's arrest or Mary uses bottled water to cool Jesus's face, it resonates. Yet without the right vocal support, stylish imagery — and faith — will only get you so far.

'Jesus Christ Superstar'

What: Bay Street Players production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical

Length: 2 hours, including intermission

Where: State Theatre, 109 N. Bay St., Eustis

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays (no matinee April 25); 2 p.m. Sundays; through May 3

Cost: $11-$21

Call: 352-357-7777

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