Monday, April 16, 2018


After an appearance last season at the Muny and a live broadcast this Easter, St. Louisans have another opportunity to catch Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's classic rock opera that’s been around since the '70s. Loosely based on the Gospels, Jesus Christ Superstar details the last week in the life of Jesus Christ -- a demanding show for any company, and Stray Dog’s production has some hits and some misses.

Omega Jones in the title role stands out as one of the show’s hits. With strong vocals (and a great upper-register), Jones’ charismatic presence is easygoing, winning over the audience and justifying the devotion of Jesus’ followers. His frustration when a flood of appeals from the down-trodden threaten to overwhelm him at the end of a nicely staged, “The Temple”, is well played, and after laying down a groundwork of growing despair, Jones delivers one of the high points of the night with “Gethsemane” -- full of hopelessness and appropriately jaded insolence.

Jesus Christ (Omega Jones),
Mary Magdalene (Heather Matthews)
and the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Lavonne Byers’ unconventional casting as Pontius Pilate was a nice move. As the Roman who’s charged with governing Judea, Byers, with the strongest acting of the night, is all bluster and sneering during her first meeting with Jesus (“Pilate and Christ”). But finding no guilt in him, and not wanting to bear the responsibility for his death, Byers’ smoky-voiced pleas with the angry mob to spare him in “Trial Before Pilate and the Thirty-Nine Lashes”, packs a real punch.

Jonathan Hey is Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who plots to have Jesus killed to keep the peace with Roman authorities. His growling bass is intimidating, and his annoyance with Jesus and his rowdy disciples is palpable. His sidekick, Annas, is played in reptilian fashion by Mike Hodges, who can barely make a move that isn’t slithery. Heather Matthews lends reliably solid vocals to the role of Mary Magdalene. Donning a black surgical mask before she is “healed”, she conveys the most emotion in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. Nice work also by Riley Dunn as Simon Zealotes, Kevin Corpuz as the disciple Peter and Gerry Love as King Herod.

(Upper left) Judas Iscariot (Phil Leveling),
(Far Right) Caiaphas (Jonathan Hey)
and the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Though Jesus gets the billing, the story really belongs to Judas Iscariot (played here by Phil Leveling), whose infamous disloyalty made his name and the word “traitor” synonymous. Agitated by his friend's growing popularity and nervous about the possible consequences, Judas sets off on a path that leads to betrayal and immediate regret. The vocal rigors of the role seemed a challenge for Leveling, but he characterizes the emotional ups and downs well. Under the music direction of Jennifer Buchheit, guitarist Aaron Doerr and percussionist Mike Hansen tackle Lloyd Webber’s rock score confidently, but the brass sounded a bit tentative on opening night, selling the fanfare portions in a couple of songs short.

Jesus Christ (Omega Jones),
Mary Magdalene (Heather Matthews)
and the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Like many iconic musicals and plays, JCS can be plopped into any time period or dressed up in any fashion you like. The time period for Stray Dog’s staging is “A distant future…”, allowing a fair amount of aesthetic latitude. Costume designer Eileen Engel outfits the cast in blacks and dark grays, with hints of red for the Jews and purple for the Romans. Hair and makeup designer Miles Bledsoe has everyone in distinct bands of eye makeup, giving the production a stylish, goth look. Stray Dog opted for something different in not starting out with Jesus wearing white, like so many productions tend to do. But the changing of his jackets throughout seemed to subtly symbolize a progression from his expanding influence to his inevitable fate.

Jesus Christ (Omega Jones),
Mary Magdalene (Heather Matthews)
and Judas Iscariot (Phil Leveling).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Director Justin Been keeps the action running smoothly, and the ensemble works together like a well-oiled machine, executing the crisp choreography that Mike Hodges provides admirably. Tyler Duenow adds moody lights to Josh Smith’s scenic design that includes 2 massive set pieces, one brick and one stone, that dominate the stage. Typical for Stray Dog shows, great use is made of the house, as the roads to Christ’s trials lead the ensemble up and down the aisles of the Abbey.

While it’s not perfect, it’s an engaging production with enough satisfying performances and creative touches to make it worth checking out. It’s playing at Tower Grove Abbey until the 28th.

Jesus Christ (Omega Jones)
and the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Photo credit: John Lamb

Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Justin Been 
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through April 28 | tickets: $25 - $30
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, additional performances 2pm Sunday, April 22 and 8pm Wednesday, April 25 *Added performance on April 18 at 8pm

Jesus Christ: Omega Jones
Judas Iscariot: Phil Leveling
Mary Magdalene: Heather Matthews
Pontius Pilate: Lavonne Byers
Caiaphas: Jonathan Hey
Annas: Mike Hodges
Peter: Kevin Corpuz
Simon Zealotes: Riley Dunn
King Herod: Gerry Love

King Herod (Gerry Love)
and the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Tristan Davis
Corey Fraine
William Humphrey

Michael Baird
Maria Bartolotta
Tristan Davis
Ebony Easter
Corey Fraine
Stephen Henley
William Humphrey
Lindsey Jones
Tim Kaniecki
Gerry Love
Kevin O’Brien
Belinda Quimby
Dawn Schmid
Chrissie Watkins

Jesus Christ (Omega Jones), Priest (William Humphrey),
Caiaphas (Jonathan Hey),
Pontius Pilate (Lavonne Byers), Annas (Mike Hodges)
and Priest (Tristan Davis).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Artistic Director: Gary F. Bell
Hair and Makeup Designer/Scenic Painter: Miles Bledsoe 
Lighting Designer: Tyler Duenow
Choreographer: Mike Hodges
Costume Designer: Eileen Engel
Costume Stitcher: Amy Hopkins
Stage Manager/Production Manager: Robert M. Kapeller
Assistant Stage Manager: Joshua Littrell
Scenic Designer: Josh Smith

The Band
Reed: Kelly Austermann
Music Director/ Piano: Jennifer Buchheit
Guitar: Aaron Doerr
Violin: Steven Frisbee
Percussion: Mike Hansen
Horn: Liz Kuba
Cello: Michaela Kuba
Bass: M. Joshua Ryan

Sunday, April 8, 2018

NEW JERUSALEM • New Jewish Theatre

Most people don’t like to have their views challenged. But when your long-held convictions about religion are upended? Oof. Forget about it. That’s what got Baruch de Spinoza excommunicated from his Jewish community in Amsterdam, as told in David Ives’ cerebral historical drama -- with its mouthful of a subtitle, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Torah Talmud Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.

Spinoza is regarded as an eminent Dutch philosopher, but in his 20’s, he was seen as a pagan when his probing theories about the pervious nature of God and his association with free-thinkers clashed with the provincial religious tenets of the day. Rob Riordan’s portrayal is animated with flashes of inspired observations, and to hear his musings about God’s infusion in all things, Spinoza's passion seems apparent. Still, deference was preferred over dissection, so prosecutor Abraham Van Valkenburgh (Jim Butz), speaking on behalf of the Christian population, wasn’t having any of it. Imposing and inflexible, Van Valkenburgh pushes for Baruch’s expulsion from society, and Butz seethes with righteous indignation.
Abraham Van Valkenburgh (Jim Butz),
Baruch de Spinoza (Rob Riordan)
and Clara van den Eden (Karlie Pinder).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey

John Flack’s Chief Rabbi Mortera is Spinoza’s mentor and biggest supporter, but he knows the danger in this determined young man's stepping out of line. Flack’s performance is heavy with the weight of being responsible not only for Spinoza, whom he regards as a son, but for all of the Jews in Amsterdam, whose presence was tolerated more than welcomed. They lived within set restrictions, and while they were admonished to refrain from engaging in religious discussions outside of their own, Spinoza couldn’t help himself. His house-mate, Simon de Vries (Will Bonfiglio), always had an open ear for Spinoza, as did Clara van den Eden (Karlie Pinder), his cautious love-interest, captivated by his intellect and convinced of his devotion.
Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera (John Flack)
and Baruch de Spinoza (Rob Riordan).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
His half-sister Rebekah (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), on the other hand, had an axe to grind with Baruch. Her frenzied hatred of him doesn’t last forever though, and Theby-Quinn’s depiction of Rebekah’s anger and eventual course shift is as amusing as it is thoughtful. Greg Johnston is the wavering Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel, the religious leader of the congregation charged with passing the judgement, and with the audience serving as witness to the trial, Spinoza is summoned to the Talmud Torah congregation, and the fiery emotion of the devout is ignited.

Rebekah de Spinoza (Jennifer Theby-Quinn)
and Abraham Van Valkenburgh (Jim Butz).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
Served up in the round under amber lanterns, director Tim Ocel’s crisp pacing holds your attention throughout the script’s heavier conceptual moments and emphasizes its streaks of humor. Jon Ontiveros’ pools of light warmly set off Peter and Margery Spack’s deceptively simple scenic design that puts all of the focus on the performances, which are strong, and Michele Friedman Siler provides nicely appointed costumes. 

With his refusal to blindly accept indoctrinated religious ideas, his embrace of a decidedly Eastern bend, and the nerve to put angels on par with unicorns, Baruch de Spinoza was bold and way ahead of his time, and NJT’s telling of his story is well worth checking out.

Simon de Vries (Will Bonfiglio)
and Baruch de Spinoza (Rob Riordan).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
• Come on, people. Turn your phones off.


Written by David Ives
Directed by Tim Ocel
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through April 22 | tickets: $41 - $44
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Baruch de Spinoza (Rob Riordan)
and Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel (Greg Johnston).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
Abraham Van Valkenburgh: Jim Butz*
Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera: John Flack*
Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel: Greg Johnston
Baruch de Spinoza: Rob Riordan
Simon de Vries: Will Bonfiglio
Clara van den Eden: Karlie Pinder
Rebekah de Spinoza: Jennifer Theby-Quinn

Stage Manager: Sarah Luedloff*
Scenic Designers: Peter & Margery Spack
Lighting Designer: Jon Ontiveros
Props Master: Margery Spack
Costume Designer: Michele Friedman Siler
Assistant Stage Manager: Isabel Garcia
Master Electrician & Board Operator: Nathan Schroeder
Wardrobe: Craig Jones

* Denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of
Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States


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