By John Lyle Belden
Producer and director Bob Harbin, a/k/a Bobdirex, is notable for bringing shows that are new and/or rarely-seen in Indy, and always thought-provoking. So, as he now presents the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice standard “Jesus Christ Superstar” – which has featured rocker Sebastian Bach, cinema-version star Ted Neeley and others over the last decade or two – I had to ask, as I prepared what I would write here: What new thing(s) does Bob feel he is showing us with his “Superstar”?
So I asked him directly, and he generously responded:
“I’ve seen a couple of those local productions, and always felt like little attention had been paid to casting people who could really sing the leads – I felt like I was being yelled at when I think the folks were simply trying to hit the notes. I’ve wanted to investigate this show, but promised myself I’d never do it without the voices.
“I also wanted to do something that didn’t feel like it had to move to another time zone to make it relevant, and cast it with the best folk with a blind eye to gender, color, size, etc., which is something that’s important to me every time.
“I really believe in the abilities of our local talent – we just have to pay attention to where we put them, and sometimes wait until the right ones are available. I love that the performance you’ve just seen and that you’ve just enjoyed was done by someone who could be your next-door neighbor.”
Well, he nailed it on the voices. In “Superstar,” playing Thursday through Sunday and June 19-21 at the former Civic Theatre stage at Marian University, Joe Doyel sings with all the necessary power needed for the lead role, Judas Iscariot.
(For those unfamiliar with the plot of Webber and Rice’s musical Passion Play, much of the story is told from the point of view of Judas. His frustration at, and arguably misunderstanding of, Jesus’ actions at the end of his ministry lends a thought-provoking perspective without compromising the sacred aspects of the Gospels. We also see Jesus’ frustration at followers who don’t seem to grasp his purpose, Mary Magdalene’s responses to her master’s fading morale, and the Jewish leaders – driven by politics as much as faith – conspiring against what they see as a “dangerous” man.)
For the other male lead, Patrick Clements embodies the full range of feelings – gentle, irritated, consoling, angry, despairing and humbled – necessary to portray Jesus. He never overdoes it, which would bring too much attention to the actor rather than the Christ he represents, but you still sense the authority he brought to his red-letter biblical utterances.
But this play’s biggest revelation is 17-year-old Julia Perillo as Mary. Her sweet, strong voice is tested but doesn’t break, providing the necessary feminine counterpoint to Judas’ proud bluster. When she sings of her beloved Christ, “he scares me so,” we shudder with her.
In another vocal coup, Harbin has brought Michael Lasley – usually encountered as the “voice of God” who tells us to silence our cell phones at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre – onto the stage as Caiaphas to rumble with astounding clarity all of those low notes.
Ty Stover is excellently cast as Pontius Pilate. We’re used to seeing him in lighter roles, but it’s easy to see how he can still do such an iconic dramatic role in his sleep (which he doesn’t – he was totally awake, I’m sure).
The role of King Herod, the closest Webber and Rice come to comedy relief, is played flamboyantly by Danny Kingston. Though the performance verges on “Queen Herod,” he still makes it work.
Overall, Harbin’s direction brings us the familiar story and songs in a highly competent manner that holds our attention, aided by Kenny Shepard’s choreography and a simple set with laddered structures that take advantage of the roomy stage. He also makes the decision to not soften the ending: What happens beyond the cross is left to the viewers and their faith.
Whether you’ve never seen this classic musical or sat through it a hundred times, this production is worth attending. Find the stage at 3200 Cold Spring Road, Indianapolis. Get tickets at 317-280-025 or bobdirex.com.