Monday, April 1, 2019

Their Cup Runneth Over

Their Cup Runneth Over

Justin Woody as Jesus

(Center) Desiree Hargrave and Justin Woody

Desiree Hargrave as Mary

Daryl Robinson as Peter, with Desiree Hargrave

(Center) Sean Fleming as Judas

(Center) Micah Harvey as Herod

By Tom Wachunas

   “Wipe your face, you just swallowed my soul.”  - Hugh Prather

   The Players Guild Theatre continues to wreck my heart in a most wondrous way. With its production of the musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, opening night left me not only gobsmacked  (as its English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice might put it), but God-smacked as well. And once again, director Jonathan Tisevich has brought to the stage his uncanny prowess at not only assembling astonishingly gifted performers, but also inspiring their impassioned immersion in the spiritual and emotional essence of the story.

   Every element of this production works successfully to maximize  electrifying drama, including the set designed by Joshua Erichsen, with its towering, cavernous Romanesque architecture encased in scaffolding; the infectious tribal energy of the choreography by Molly Weidig; the rugged, streetwise modernity of costumes by Stephen Ostertag; the fiery textures and relentless rhythms from the superb live orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons.

   Here is a briskly paced, implacably humanist perspective on Jesus Christ. We watch him struggle mightily to reconcile his humanity with his divinity. While he intimately knows the what and the how of dying, he also questions the why of it. Nowhere is this tension more heartrending than in the second-act song, “Gethsemane,” when Jesus is praying alone in the garden, his apostles fallen asleep around him. As Jesus, Justin Woody is an enthralling and luminous theatrical force. The expressive sonority and amazing range of his singing voice is breathtaking in the way it makes both gentleness and anger a tangible presence.

   This sublime emotive potency is all the more enhanced and amplified when seen in tandem with the volatile performance by Sean Fleming as the conflicted Judas, the unbelieving apostle we love to hate. With a singing voice every bit as compelling as that of Justin Woody’s, Fleming’s haunting rants and wails are truly frightening.

   Speaking of ‘conflicted,’  it’s Desiree Hargrave, in her role of Mary, who most tenderly embodies the sociocultural angst that surrounded the misunderstood Jesus. When she sings the powerful anthem, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” time seems to stop altogether. The sheer pathos of the moment sears our hearts as she tearfully voices her urgent spiritual dilemma in achingly sweet and soaring tones. Later, she sings the equally sweet “Could We Start Again, Please?”  It’s a brief but very moving duet with Daryl Robinson, who plays Peter. Their piercing harmonies are a brilliant articulation of real sorrow and supplication.

   In “King Herod’s Song,” Micah Harvey delivers one of the evening’s rowdiest and most salacious interludes – as hilarious as it is chilling. Accompanied by high-kicking showgirls, he brings down the house with his bawdy portrayal of a viciously strutting monarch hurling sardonic taunts at a passive Jesus.

   Not so overtly raucous are the stern-faced demeanors and throaty intonations of Christopher Gales as high-priest Caiaphas, and Mark Dillard as Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Both are remarkably solemn if not downright  scary in how they wield their dark authority over the fate of Jesus.  
   Finally, there’s the otherworldly lighting, designed by Scott Sutton. It creates a consistently charged atmosphere of ethereality that culminates in a mesmerizing flash of white at the conclusion of the production - like bolts of frozen lightning delineating the suspended body of the crucified Christ. But this startling image doesn’t depict the devastating end of a life. It is indeed the profoundly contemplative and glorious vision of a life beginning.

 Jesus Christ Superstar /  Through April 14, 2019 / Performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday / at Players Guild Theatre Mainstage, Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton / TICKETS: $32 for adults, $25 for 17 and younger, $29 for seniors. Order at 330-453-7617 and   (Photos - courtesy Players Guild Theatre)

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