Review: “Jesus Christ Superstar”

L-R: Donterrio Johnson, Khaki Pixley, Sharriese Hamilton, Max DeTogne
L-R: Donterrio Johnson, Khaki Pixley, Sharriese Hamilton, Max DeTogne

RECOMMENDED

Where: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave.
When: through May 17
Tickets: $39-$43
Phone: 800-595-4849

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” is far from the first musical you’d think of scaling down for a cabaret theater, but Theo Ubique generally pulls it off.

Director Fred Anzevino has assembled a cast of terrific singers for the rock opera that started as a concept album in 1970, and they perform without body microphones, revealing the beauty of songs that often suffer in grandiose, over-amplified productions. If the four-man orchestra tucked in one corner sometimes sounds a little thin, that’s much better than drowning out the voices.

Heading the ensemble in the title role is recent college grad Maxwell J. DeTogne, who looks like a 1960s hippie and exudes a blend of hubris and vulnerability that enhances the ironies and satire of the piece. Whether he’s relishing the favors his followers confer on him, rebuking them for failing to fully realize what’s happening, or grappling with the fate he feels is thrust upon him, DeTogne’s Jesus retains a certain ambiguity. In the early scenes especially, he’s simultaneously beguiling and infuriating, allowing us to see the perspectives of both his devotées and detractors,

Donterrio Johnson’s bold, brassy, and increasingly bitter Judas is an apt antithesis to Jesus. His opening number, “Heaven on Their Minds,” sets the tone that leads him down the inevitable path, and though he sometimes swallows the lyrics a bit, he holds his own in a very difficult part.

But the real joy here is Danni Smith’s Mary. I’ve seen this show several times, and never have the songs “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Everything’s Alright,” and “Could We Start Again Please?” sounded so fresh and heart-felt. While she’s been excellent in other Theo Ubique productions, this role seems to bring out her best.

Of those who want to get rid of Jesus, Jonah D. Winston makes the biggest impression as the deep-voiced Caiaphas in numbers like “This Jesus Must Die,” and Tommy Bullington, aided by the king’s court, has a ball with Herod’s “King Herod’s Song.” Ryan Armstrong’s slight blond Pilate also has his moments as he weighs the demands of the Jewish leaders and the mob against pangs of conscience.

Given the small size, layout, and less-than-ideal sight lines of the No Exit, staging “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a real challenge. Anzevino uses every inch available to him, but some effects are impossible to achieve. Brock Alter’s projections don’t make much of an impression on Adam Veness’s set, and the final moments of the evening fall flat, as does Judas’s death. Brenda Didier’s choreography sometimes comes across as too ambitious for the limited space. Less might have been more, as it is in so many instances.

On the other hand, the intimacy is what allows “Jesus Christ Superstar” to be unplugged, and that’s a very good thing. Frankly, I’d go see it just for Danni Smith’s performance.