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Multiple “Superstars”, Jesus Christ Superstar at Village Playbox

by Stephen T. Kreal



On Friday, May 4th, I got to see the opening performance of Village Playbox’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the First Presbyterian Church in Haddon Heights, NJ. Normally, Village Playbox performs in the lower-level theater space beneath the church. The church graciously allowed VPB to hold the run of performances in the sanctuary of the church. It was directed by John Blackwell and assistant-directed by Haley Trimble. Natasha Thompson was stage manager (great job with quick scene changes). Gary Kochey worked the lights. Mark Kozachyn serve as musical director and sound director.


Jesus Christ Superstar is the creation of lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Weber. Originally released as a concept record album, it made its Broadway debut on October 12th, 1971 and ran for 711 performances. Aspects of the story and characterizations were controversial at the time. JCS also enjoyed a very long run in London’s West End theater district. The October 25th, 1971 edition of Time magazine ran a cover story about the play with the tagline: “Jesus Christ Superstar Rocks Broadway”.


The simple set was on the altar of the church, with a low wall between the audience and the stage draped with earth-toned burlap. Director John Blackwell was able make good use of the wall as a set piece. There was one opening in the middle, which made some sightlines difficult. The production made excellent use of the available space to immerse the audience in the experience. It also allowed for clever concealment of cast members.


I usually don’t start with the ensemble, but in this case, the ensemble was amazing! The performers sang, danced and acted with a zeal and enthusiasm that permeated the sanctuary. Their energy from the opening number to the finale was unwavering. Their body movements, as well as their well-lit facial expressions, added so much to the experience. This high-energy ensemble even featured a cast member with their leg in an orthopedic boot, the show must go on! On numerous occasions, they paraded down the aisles. Jennifer Gordon’s creative choreography made for a very kinesthetic evening for the performers, creating a wonderful effect. In the opening number in particular, it was as if the ensemble was a single character. Ensemble members included: Kyle Simon, Rachael Grodzielanek, Peper Byrne, Jessica Allen Shockley, Victoria Tatulli, Presely Terch, Marie Altmann, Patrick Walton, Jessica Brotherton, Piper Byrne, Hannah Lee DeFrates, Madelyn Grodzielanek, Audrey DiEnno Lacroce and Angela Thompson.


The story arc is based on the Gospel accounts in the New Testament of the Bible. It focuses on the humanity of Jesus, largely from the perspective of Judas, played by Thomas Foy. His opening number is “Heaven on Their Minds”, where he laments that Jesus’s followers are perhaps overly dedicated to him and presages that The Romans may start to notice. Mr. Foy’s performance was masterful. His vocal inflections, vocal power, and increasing anguish made for an amazing theatrical performance. 


Judas is constantly shadowed by The Tormentor, played beautifully by Jessica Brotherton, a highly trained and experienced (and graceful) dancer. The etymology of the word Tormentor is from the Anglo-French tormentour, meaning torturer or “one who inflicts pain”. Ms. Brotherton was able to highlight Judas’s alienation, confusion and doubt without dialogue (sung or spoken), through interpretive dance and a wide range of facial expressions. 


The role of Jesus is played by Bob Gordon, clad in loose-fitting, off-white linen pants and shirt. The musical focuses on the humanity of Jesus (as opposed the divinity of Jesus…one of the aforementioned controversies in the early days). Mr. Gordon had multiple scenes in which the humanity of the character is expertly portrayed. This is perhaps best shown in “Gethsemane”, when Jesus laments his inevitable fate. Mr. Gordon’s clear vocals and body movements conveyed the humanity of Jesus wonderfully. His scenes with Judas/Tormentor were filled with emotion and intensity as the relationship crumbles.


Midway through Act One, we are introduced to Caiaphas, The high priest of Jerusalem who, according to Biblical accounts, sent Jesus to Pilate for his execution. This role is played by Rich Shockley, with a deep, low bass voice. Mr. Shockley’s countenance was stern and menacing. His counterpart, Annas, played by Rachel Grodzelanek was equally, nay, more so, menacing than Caiaiphas! Annas is a fellow priest at the side of Caiaphas, who is persuaded by Caiaphas into seeing Jesus as a threat. Ms. Grodzelanek’s fearsome expressions were quite impressive (as was her wig, which deserves to be listed as a cast member)! Debra Heckmann played an unnamed priest (as well as ensemble) with equal menace. 


In one of the many standout performances, the role of Pontius Pilate was played by Dave Chorzelewski. This character is one of the most conflicted in the play. His confusion at the crowd was palpable. He displayed his hesitation as Jesus received the 39 lashes. Mr. Chorzelewski has a strong stage presence and an operatic singing voice. His singing is flawless. He was dressed in full kingly regalia, and played the role to perfection. 


While Pilate was decked out, the cast mostly wore an eclectic, purposefully anachronistic costuming. As a side note, this is a common theme in productions of JCS. Costumer Haley Trimble (and cast) achieved a balance between the ancient and the modern. Some ensemble members wore period-appropriate sandals and loose-fitting robes, while others wore tie-dye t-shirts and canvas tennis shoes. The colors were balanced very nicely. 


The other role of note is, of course, Mary Magdalene, the female follower of Jesus who finds herself conflicted with emotions about Jesus, was played by Kelly Lynn Flores. Her rendition of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” (a lifelong, personal favorite of mine) was beautifully sung as Jesus slept on a mat next to her, which was a nice directorial touch to highlight her devotion. She also sang “Could We Start Again” with ensemble member Patrick Walton (accompanied by the ensemble). The song was powerful and emotional.


Things come to critical mass when King Herod ponders the situation in the number “Herod’s Song”. Actor Ryan Heckmann really relishes his time in the spotlight with his rendition. The sneering contempt for Jesus is obvious as Herod giddily mocks Jesus. The venom in his intonation was awesome!


In the climactic scene, Jesus is crucified in a technically impressive scene. The otherwise subdued lighting is changed for dramatic effect, with backlighting illuminating a full-size crucifix. Mr. Gordon portrays anguish/agony convincingly in a very dramatic scene that leads into the closing number and abrupt end. 


“Jesus Christ Superstar” is a 1970’s era rock opera (very popular at the time). The music is rock-driven, with hints of soul and jazz. I truly believe that it deserves to be performed with a live band (as opposed to pre-recorded music). Some of the guitar riffs and horns would be that much better with live musicians. 


Congratulations to the cast and crew of this production. I enjoyed seeing this performance and the dedication of the cast and crew really came through. “Jesus Christ Superstar runs through May 18th. Tickets can be purchased here: http://www.villageplaybox.org/tix/checkout.htm






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