Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice’s breakout rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, as reimagined by Camarillo Skyway Playhouse, is a modern day parable about the media’s consumption of celebrity and our connection to and disconnection from the spiritual, is a visionary but uneven production. The show, originally produced as a record, has become a springtime chestnut for community theater groups. Director Dean Johnson’s vision is best realized in the costuming of his diverse cast; and even where the edges fray a little, a welcome freshness surges.
“Heaven on their Minds,” which opens the show, certainly feels different when the ensemble sings while busy with smartphones, tablets and video cameras. The zealots’ confrontations with the Pharisees bristle, given Caiaphas’ distinctly “modern Arab” look. A Roman guard dressed as a militarized police officer (complete with S.W.A.T. emblem) and a Mary Magdalene with brightly colored hair and rave bracelets provide a visible, visceral connection to the modern in a show often presented in its original 1970s hippie motif.
At CSP, Nick Newkirk is an affable, low-key Jesus. He is easy to listen to, and in his finest moments is a believably reluctant messiah grappling with his slipping control of his believers and his own life. His moments with Judas (Jeff Berg) are riveting, but both men struggle occasionally with the heavy vocal demands of their roles, especially the falsettos. Berg gives Judas a refreshing humanity, keying on the most hated man in history’s desire to help his friend by turning him in, and falling victim to powers beyond himself. Dawn Notagiacomo is an edgy, alt-pop Mary Magdalene with a light, airy voice. Her forlorn “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” late in the first act is her best moment.
It is the strong supporting cast here that is most impressive, though. Michael G. Chandler’s Caiaphas is a menacing, baritone presence. Ezra Eells gives Annas a unique and refreshing take, turning a sometimes throwaway character into one that draws the eye and ear. But it is John Dantona’s Pontius Pilate who steals this show with a forceful, conflicted and deep performance. Though present in only two scenes, he is felt throughout, and it is no coincidence that the night’s most powerful moments are centered on his resonant vocals.
Dean Johnson’s vision of this 21st century rock star resolves into perfect focus during “Trial by Pilate” and “Superstar” as the ensemble boils over and Pilate counts off 39 lashes with increasing intensity. The scene is electric, and Jeff Berg’s rendition of “Superstar,” which follows, is beautifully (if sparsely) staged with sparkling sequins and a disco beat in front of an anguishing, dying Jesus.
Had the cast shown the same energy and intensity during the rest of the performance, coupled with some deeper art direction and set design, this Jesus Christ Superstar would be one for the books. As it stands, Camarillo Skyway Playhouse presents an enjoyable, watchable update on a classic rock musical.
Jesus Christ Superstar, through Nov. 9. Camarillo Skyway Playhouse. For more information, call 388-5716.