TLT brings ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ to the stage in time for Easter

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Jesus (Bruce Haasl), wearing stocking cap in center, sits with his disciples.Photo by Dennis K Photography

Tacoma Little Theatre continues its 99th season with a sparkling production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s glorious rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

The now much-loved musical started off in 1970 as a concept album with music by Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. The album was developed into a full-blown Broadway production in 1971. It was made into a movie in 1973, starring some of the same actors who were in the Broadway version of the show. Webber went on to compose more musical theater classics like “Evita,” “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”

The TLT production, directed and choreographed by Lexi Barnett and musically directed by Leischen Moore, is perfectly timed to run through Easter Sunday, April 1. It is perfect fare as winter melts away and the calendar propels us toward Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter itself.

Jesus experiences his last moments on the cross. Photo by Dennis K Photography

The Kingdom of Judea during the last few days of the life of Jesus, as told by the New Testament gospels, is the setting for Webber’s version of the story, which focuses on the growing rift between Jesus, the charismatic leader of a movement, and Judas, who – in this version of the story – is a social reformer who is disappointed to see a cause he believed in dissolve into a kind of celebrity worship of Jesus. The musical drama also highlights Mary Magdalene as a disciple with a heartfelt understanding of Jesus. The close relationship between the two is portrayed with sweet tenderness.

The TLT production is marked by great music, energetic dancing, spectacular lighting effects and inventive costume and set design.

The story’s key roles are fleshed out by performers who are also superb singers. Bruce Haasl, as Jesus, is a tenor with an impressive stage presence. His voice is the audio equivalent of his rugged good looks. He is matched by Allie Milburn, who makes her TLT debut in the role of Mary Magdalene. She is sensual and is possessed of a lush and expressive voice. For my money, her solo performance of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” near the end of the first act, is worth the price of admission all by itself.

The very complex role of Judas – probably the most challenging role in the play – is taken on by Loucas T. Curry, who has to pour all of the urgency and uncertainty of the frustrated disciple into his lyrical performance.

Christopher Sweet, as Peter, is as great a vocalist as he is a dancer in this electrifying show. Coming off a triumphal performance as the Cat-in-the-Hat in TLT’s “Seussical,” Sweet adds to his luster with his part in this show.

DuWayne Andrews, Jr., as Pilate, gives a velvety edge to his song lyrics. I have always found Pilate’s solo song, “Pilate’s Dream,” to be hauntingly beautiful.

One of the three “soul girls,” Caiti Burke, deserves special notice for the confident ease of her dancing and for the natural charm of her stage presence.

Harem Girl (Melanie Gladstone), Herod (Andrew Fry), Harem Girl (Caiti Burke) and Harem Girl (Shauntal Pyper) perform a jaunty song and dance. Photo by Dennis K Photography

The show’s dance captain Jill Heinecke, a great local actor, seems capable of doing everything: in addition to her acting skills, she is an eye-catching dancer and a fine singer.

We would run out of space with a list of the talents of every member of the large cast. They all pull together to make this a memorable show. In addition to those mentioned, the show features Karen Christensen, Jaden Downing, Carl Frank, Andrew Fry (a very funny King Herod), Melanie Gladstone, James Klarich, Rico Lastrapes, Sydney Lenoch, George McClure, Aleks Merilo, the leggy Shauntal Pyper, Mary F. Thornton, Barrett Vandiver, Madison Watkins, Randon Welch and Julia Wyman.

Michele Graves’ costume designs are varied and inventive. The counterpoint to Jesus and his band of hippie apostles is the Jewish high council, dressed in black suits with bright red neckties. Pilate is decked out in a leather newsboy cap and long leather coat. Members of the populace, who want Jesus crucified, are decked out in dark clothing with hoods. The scene of the temple features a group of exotic dancers clad in tight, black leather and vinyl with dollar bills tucked into their clothing. King Herod is shown in Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt with sunglasses and holding a cocktail with a little umbrella. Policemen, news reporters and disco dancers are all part of the mix of this show.

Blake R. York’s set design is simple and effective: a huge cross-shaped formation functions as a ramped stage. In the back and to the sides are large triangles of opaque glass that work with the lighting effects.

In addition to the great music, lighting wizard Niclas Olson runs everything from strobes to moody spotlights during the production. There are sorrowful scenes lit by candlelight. The scintillating title song, “Superstar,” features an out-of-this-world dance with sequined angels (the “soul girls”) and Judas, who is now in heavenly garb. These are soon joined by dancers holding crosses that are made up of twinkling lights.

The show leaps from one high point to the next. In addition to the Mary Magdalene solo, there are several very musical dialogues among members of the council. Their song “This Jesus Must Die” has been stuck in my head since opening night. “Could We Start Again Please?” is a lovely duet between Peter and Mary. The scene of Jesus and the lepers is wonderfully macabre. King Herod’s song and dance give comic relief – just before the drama of the flogging and crucifixion of Jesus.

Personally, this is a musical that I have come to love through repeated viewings of the 1973 movie. Never before, however, have I seen it produced by a live community theatrical group. TLT does justice to the music and drama of this rock n’ roll interpretation of the gospel story.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” runs through April 1. For complete scheduling, ticketing and other information, visit www.tacomalittletheatre.com.

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