By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
The second and final weekend of Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane’s Jesus Christ Superstar brings with it the remaining shows of the Michael McKelvey era. McKelvey, who came to Summer Lyric Theatre and Tulane a little more than five years ago, has been busy bringing lots of changes to the traditional summer programming and breathing new life into old standards as well as presenting newer works.
More than anyone else, McKelvey, as artistic director, oversaw an intentional move away from the typical and expected casting which had become the calling card of Summer Lyric productions. They always had a very high standard and did a remarkable job, but many of the same very talented cast members seemed to shuffle between shows that were largely throwbacks to the golden era of Broadway.
With McKelvey on board and his connections to Broadway and a network of previously unexposed talent, shows like Les Miserablés, Newsies, Matilda and Ragtime became the calling card of the Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane productions audiences came to expect.
This final show, produced under a demanding Actor’s Equity COVID-compliant contract, caps off his years of service to the Music Department at Tulane with the three top leads of Jesus, Judas and Mary going to talented players who hail from Memphis, New York and New Orleans, respectively.
Prentiss E. Mouton, last seen as one of the singing leads in Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World, made for a spectacular, well-chiseled Jesus. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice intentionally wrote Jesus for a measured and pensive voice based in hard rock vocalizations. Mouton’s voice easily lends itself to the more soulful and expressive passages of his antagonist Judas.
Likewise, Alex Stone as Judas, needed to use more range in his powerful voice so as to find the blues and soul that role demanded. As professionals, both leading men did what was expected of them by co-directors McKelvey and Polanco Jones, Jr. Yet, after the curtain rang down, there was a quality of conforming to Lloyd Webber’s musical line and sensibilities that seemed somewhat strained.
Kamata, by far and away, had the easiest time among the leads conforming her velvety voice to that of Mary Magdelene’s range. While she proudly hails from deep New Orleans roots, she had been living and performing out of New York prior to the pandemic. The shutdown meant a return home, so New York’s loss means New Orleans’ (and Summer Lyric’s) gain. We can all hope she will return in upcoming summers to lend her silvery tones to future Summer Lyric shows.
Jones, who directed Songs for a New World earlier in the season, has a background in movement and choreography, while McKelvey excels as a music director and conductor. They each fed off their strengths and relied on Diane Lala as choreographer to carry out their vision for the sections of the show which required dance and more movement.
Lala, the director and choreographer of the most recent SLT show, Rodgers and Hamerstein’s It’s a Grand Night for Singing in June, was put into a position of putting a lot more dance into a show that was built more on song than dance. The overall impression was that less would have been more with this musical, which, after all, originally had been billed as a “rock opera.”
Singing “Pilate’s Dream,” Ken Goode, Jr., as Pontius Pilate, played the Roman heavy to a grateful audience. His baritone register filled the Dixon Hall venue with the proper amount of gravitas and the ease with which he navigated the role was an anchor for when he engaged both the ensemble and played opposite Jesus and the Pharisees in Act II. A longtime performer since 2004 with Summer Lyric, Goode’s performance as Pilate could be his most memorable role since his Storer Boone Award-winning stint as Cosmo Brown in Rivertown Rep’s production of Singin’ in the Rain.
As the two leading Pharisees, Keith Claverie (Annas) and Brian Sanford (Caiaphas) play the leading Jewish plotters who conspire to dispatch Jesus. Their initial scene with the other high priests is more a matter of exposition in “This Jesus Must Die,” but the two scenes opposite Stone as Judas (“The Arrest” and “Judas’ Death”) were the most interesting in which they appeared.
By far the most daring of the casting choices was the decision to cast Whitney Mixon in the role of Herod, whose one song is used as a bit of comic relief prior to the heavy material of public floggings and crucifixion. Her delightful rendition combined a bit of New Orleans jazz with that of a vaudeville singer of days gone by. She mugged her way through the performance while sporting a Kaci Thomassie red gown that had a matching headdress evocative of an early blues singer of the Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey era.
Speaking of Thomassie, her costumes were superlative. From Mary’s plunging neckline and muted crimson frock to Judas’ golden ensemble in the 11th hour titular song, the cast was clothed with carefully considered and beautifully rendered costumes. The Roman guard were effectively cast in menacing modern day police officer uniforms. The simplicity of Jesus’ garb, which was required to be shed at the culmination of Act II, was also quite functional.
Live video feeds were sent to projections and overhead monitors, mimicking present-day news crews. They documented Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, his capture and eventual crucifixion. James Lanius’ designs and animation in depicting scenes like Judas’ death were rendered well.
As usual, Rick Paul’s set did not disappoint with its modern influences. His choice of a metal cage on which Jesus is crucified achieved the desired effect of retelling the biblical story through modern eyes.
The music was masterfully conducted by McKelvey in this, his swan song, and the supporting keyboards provided by Donna Clavijo and Natalie True (also the production’s rehearsal pianists), were marvelous. While the trio of John Eubanks (electric guitar), Becky Hicks (electric bass) and Kevin “Q” Estroque (drums) laid down the necessary backing, it was Clavijo and True who did much of the heavy lifting with their keyboards emulating other instruments. While Summer Lyric audiences are accustomed to 20+ ensembles for shows, this one did quite well in its nuanced, socially-distanced manner.
Due to the number of apostles, tormentors, priests and soldiers, it is not possible to list them or the number of youth chorus members in this version of Jesus Christ Superstar. While they all contributed to the production, there is little doubt there would probably have numbered more on stage and with more contact between players in a non-pandemic year. It’s probably safe to assume a larger orchestra would also have been chosen.
There is no doubt this Superstar was largely affected by the continuing pandemic and it was a herculean task to put on this first full-blown production on an Orleans Parish stage. While it’s sad to see the end of the Summer Lyric offerings for this year, it is even sadder to see the McKelvey era end.
The 50th anniversary production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar finishes its run at Summer Lyric Theatre on Sunday, July 25.