Pride and Prejudice – Theatre Review: Southwest Shakespeare Company, Mesa Arts Center, Mesa

Like Jane Austen’s novel, the new, inventive adaptation of Pride and Prejudice from playwright Daniel Elihu Kramer begins with same opening line. Apart from anything written by Dickens, it’s possibly one of the most famous opening lines in English literature. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

In Southwest Shakespeare Company’s creatively witty and hugely entertaining production of the 1813 Austen classic, now performing at Mesa Arts Center until April 8, each member of the cast, all five of them, contribute either a word or a repeated portion of that sentence in a way that neatly captures the essence of everything to follow. Ask any student of Austen and they’ll tell you, that single sentence, with it’s jaunty, practically chipper rhythm, may reveal society’s preoccupation with marriages for the single, wealthy man, but it can also indicate something somewhat problematic for the single woman. In nineteenth century England, the issue of a socially advantageous marriage was often limited, with dire consequences for a happy future if never fulfilled. In other words, for some society ladies of the day, it was the best of times, for others, the worst.

Playwright Kramer has deconstructed Austen’s book and presented it as a play rife with questions to be answered, theories to be discussed, on-line blogs to be written, plus asides, movie quotes and even a word or two from Jane Austen herself in the form of letters written to either her older sister Cassandra or her niece, Fanny. It’s like watching a newly prepared Annotated Pride and Prejudice for the Twenty-First Century Reader. When a character mentions that Mr. Bingley has been called away to town, an actor will briskly sprint across from stage left to stage right letting us know that the town in question is London.

Austen’s novel is left largely intact. As with any stage adaptation, it’s a fragmented account, but the overall feel is one of a satisfactory re-telling that incorporates all key elements of familiar dialog and famous scenes. The five players listed as Actress A, B and C (Alison Campbell, Katie Hart and Breona Conrad) and Actor A and B (Kyle Sorrell and Cale Pascual) perform all characters from the sprawling novel and literally tell the story. When Mr. Darcy (Kyle Sorrell) sees Elizabeth Bennet (Alison Campbell) across the room, Sorrell both performs and narrates, “When she caught his eye, he withdrew his gaze.” And later, “Elizabeth attracted Darcy more than he liked.

With a keen, inventive approach, director Kent Burnham allows his actors to drop the faux, somewhat clipped and genteel English period accents as each performer stops the action, which regularly occurs, steps out of character and asks of the audience in an American voice, to whom was Jane Austen engaged, or how many Bennet daughters are there in the novel? On stage we can only see two at the most, but as the cast check on their mobiles and engage in discussion, the answer is, of course, five. There are other breaks and comical asides along the way.

When a scene has Darcy meet up with Elizabeth at a later moment, the action is stopped and the scene briefly re-enacted in the form of movie-quotes, one from the Greer Garson 1940 film, one from the Colin Firth 1995 BBC TV mini-series (which is technically not a movie-quote, but that’s just nitpicking) and one from the Kiera Knightly 2005 remake. Bridget Jones’ Diary and the one with the zombies are never mentioned.

There’s also fun visual invention, as when Jane (Katie Hart) visits the Bingleys at Netherfield, their rented house, and journeys alone on horseback through the wooded countryside during a thunderstorm, complete with rattling leaves held on branches by the cast and backed by Lindsey Longcor’s thunderous sound, and dark, crackling lighting, a moment made even funnier with the inclusion of a stuffed deer’s head observing the scene.

What’s particularly notable is how good the five-member cast are with all of of their individual characters. Both Sorrell and Campbell would look completely at home as Darcy and Elizabeth in a regular, straight version of the play. Plus, there’s playful humor in seeing Sorrell return to the stage in the character of the pompous Reverend Collins. With glasses at the end of his nose, the slightest of lisps, his hair lightly tousled, and his hands clasped forever together before him – not as obsequious as Uriah Heep, but just as irksome – Sorrell’s clergyman with his overstated sense of humility remains every bit as comedic in this production as he does in Austen’s novel.

Ultimately, during the final twenty minutes, the play feels longer than it should. As the story draws to its conclusion, rounding up all the character subplots while having Elizabeth’s prejudice of first impressions and Darcy’s haughty pride overcome, the story is so wonderfully engaging on its own terms that breaking the fourth wall for additional asides of trivia makes things less entertaining, while those asides become more interruptive. The hawking of a souvenir mug quoting Darcy’s opening lines to his marriage proposal isn’t as funny as it might sound, and the running joke of London being the town that characters continually quote becomes less amusing with every mention.

But like wondering whether a line from a TV production technically qualifies as a movie-quote, for some audiences, those above-mentioned reservations may seem like nitpicking in a production that continually amuses throughout. There’s always pleasure to be had watching the moment when witnessing Mr. Bennet’s viewpoint as he comments on his daughter’s refusal of Rev. Collins’ advances, or of enjoying Katie Hart’s portrayal of the excitable and silly Lydia. There’s also something comforting when noticing the warm delight in Alison Campbell’s smile as she introduces another brief moment with the author herself, Jane Austen (Hart). Plus, like the book, the play’s conclusion can’t help but be one of great satisfaction. As playwright Kramer has his characters tell us in advance of the intermission, unlike modern novelists, Jane Austen wasn’t afraid of happy endings.

CLICK HERE for the official Southwest Shakespeare Company website

Pictures courtesy of Patrick Walsh

Posted in Theatre

Wilson – Film Review

Modern civilization is a scam,” declares the supercilious, middle-aged divorcee loner, Wilson (Woody Harrelson) during the opening voice-over. “Happiness is hard to come by,” he adds. Well, in his world, when you’re a curmudgeon with a condescending attitude to everything and everyone around you, then, sure, happiness is the last thing you’ll come across.

Director Craig Johnson’s new comedy/drama titled simply Wilson is an adaptation from a graphic novel of the same name from writer Daniel Clowes, the cartoonist and scriptwriter whose earlier Ghost World became a 2001 movie. The same, sardonic style of humor is there. In Ghost World, teenage girls Enid and Rebecca viewed their world through a cynical prism. Wilson – we never know if that’s his first or last name; he’s simply Wilson – views things pretty much through the same prism, though there’s a difference. While the two amusingly critical girls were teenagers who would eventually go through something of a maturing curve and settle (at least, Rebecca did) Wilson is a grown man. That curve veered off a long time.

As shown in the first ten minutes or so, Wilson alienates everyone he meets, and it’s the one thing that seems to amuse him. He laughs at a curbside panhandler, who calls out obscenities as Wilson passes by. He insists on talking to strangers, who are minding their own business, and usually ends the one-sided conversation by lobbing insults. At a cafe bar, even though all the other tables are empty, he insists on sitting at the table where a stranger is working on his laptop. “Aren’t you a little old to be doing all that computer stuff?” he asks. Plus, he enjoys driving slowly over the white lines of a busy highway so that vehicles attempting to pass have to either swerve wildly either side or reluctantly follow at the same, snail pace.

But when Wilson gets the news that his father has died, he cries. Oddly, because of what you’ve already seen of Wilson, his attitude, his behavior and his responses, you’re not quite sure if the crying is still part of his act. Considering he goes through the day as if everything he says and does is one life-long personal performance art of comical dissatisfaction with the modern world, created for the amusement of an audience of one (think Andy Kaufman), perhaps even the crying is a performance. Only it turns out it’s not. He’s genuinely upset, and it’s an event that makes him reflect more seriously on where he is in his life, which is basically alone in a shabby room, living with his dog.

Wilson tries to reconnect with his past by reuniting with his ex, one-time drug addict now waitress in a steak house, Pippi (Laura Dern), whose reaction to meeting the man she abandoned seventeen years ago is something less than enthusiastic. But out of their meeting comes a discovery. The child Wilson thought was aborted after the divorce was actually placed for adoption. He has a daughter, and she lives with a couple in town. Before the blink of an eye, Wilson has found her, and she turns out to be overweight and just as cynical as dad.

There’s a lot in Wilson that you saw in Ghost World, at least in style and dead-pan humor, though Woody Harrelson delivers insults so amusingly, there’s something strangely endearing about his misanthrope that makes you laugh louder. It’s actually fun to see how his insults are his principle source of entertainment. Occasionally, you may even find yourself agreeing with some of his observations, even if you would never publicly admit it. It also has a good cast.

In addition to Dern, there’s the always enjoyable Judy Greer as Wilson’s dog-watcher with whom he later strikes up a surprising relationship; Cheryl Hines as the stepmother to Wilson’s daughter; and the daughter herself, Isabella Amara. “I always wondered how I got to be like this,” she states after meeting her biological father for the first time.

But ultimately, the overall feel to the film is of something saying or doing nothing particularly special, other than it being a respectable time-passer with some early laughs. It’s light fare. It quickly dissolves from memory once it’s done. In fact, even though author Daniel Clowes adapted his own work, it’s the graphic novel and it’s style that turns out to be the better medium in which to meet the man. Wilson is fun to know, but in the end, he comes across as far more effective a character on the printed page in strip form with pictures than at the movies.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 94 Minutes     Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

T2 Trainspotting – Film Review

The title to the 1996 Trainspotting sequel may sound somewhat unimaginative, even clumsy – no colons, no dashes – but there’s a reason. During production, the working title began as simply Trainspotting 2, but director Danny Boyle wanted something more. He gathered the cast and asked them what they thought their characters would call the sequel. Given the ages of Renton, Spud, Simon, and Begbie, their penchant for nostalgia, plus their use of pop culture references, the cast agreed on T2. The Irvine Welsh book upon which the film is partly based, Porno, was never an option.

It’s twenty years later. Those working-class, aimless, drug-addled, beer swigging, often criminal, early twenty-somethings are now middle-aged and looking older. In the way that Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) ran from the police during the opening of Trainspotting, the new T2 has him running in a gym, his feet pounding the treadmill to the pulsating beat of the film’s opening rock soundtrack. Each of the four principle characters remembered from ‘96 have their stories, and the film brings us quickly up to date.

After running off with practically all the stolen money from a drug deal all those years ago, Renton has lived for the past twenty years with a wife in Amsterdam, but the relationship has soured. He returns to Edinburgh, back to his parents home – his mother has died – and back to his old bedroom, left untouched, still housing his David Bowie albums, his stereo turntable, his football magazines of his favorite player, Manchester United’s George Best, a secret stash still hidden away, and the childhood wallpaper of trains and steam engines.

Spud (Ewen Bremner) continues to struggle with a heroin addiction. Dealing with the failure of his life, including his comical battle with daylight savings time that made him continuously an hour late for every important meeting he was ever supposed to attend, including work, he’s now preparing for suicide.

Simon (Johnny Lee Miller) is landlord to a rundown pub, but subsidizes his income by growing weed in the pub’s basement and blackmailing seemingly respectable men with incriminating sex videos, a scheme he’s concocted with the help of his Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Meeting up with Renton after twenty years is not a welcomed reunion. “I’m gonna make him sorry he ever came back,” Simon declares.

And then there’s the psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle) who’s twenty-five year prison sentence still has five years to go, and parole was once again denied due to that violent temper that appears to have grown even more violent with each passing year. He’s a genuinely frightening figure. Having no intention of staying confined any further, he arranges a painful accident, is taken to hospital, escapes, and returns home to his wife and his now grown son, Frank (Scot Greenan). Begbie wants his son to follow dad’s footsteps into crime. Frank wants to get his diploma in hotel management.

As directed by Danny Boyle with his signature, adrenaline-fueled edits, cuts and image flashes, the sequel looks even more like a series of cinematic nervous tics than the original, yet it captures that feel of lives rushing by, and the film doesn’t disappoint. As with thoughts flashing through a mind, those four characters live in a past where their youth, their relationships, their whole history haunts them, constantly reminding them of a life wasted with little to show for it, and not much on the horizon. With self-referential clips from the original, the four constantly reflect on what they were and what they did.

When Renton and Simon talk of their early, youthful days to Veronika, their admiration of the greatest football player ever, George Best, and their love of John Barry’s music from the Bond movies, their excitement grows faster than they can speak. At one moment, and perhaps the film’s most touching scene, Spud, now balding and surprisingly a little wiser about himself, stands in the middle of an Edinburgh street and watches, motionless, as his former self with his friends race by. Engaged by Spud’s stories of the past, Veronika encourages the always struggling addict to write down his reminisces, which he does. Even the rage-filled Begbie later reflects back when reading one of Spud’s pages.

A couple of issues. With the exception of the new character, Veronika, the females of Trainspotting’s past are only faintly acknowledged. Kelly Macdonald’s Diane has only one scene – she’s now a lawyer who may or may not defend Simon in a blackmailing case – and Shirley Henderson’s Gail, Spud’s wife, has just the one line. After she reads Spud’s essays, she looks up and tells him she has a title. Plus, the film never gives an altogether satisfactory reason for Renton’s return. His home has been The Netherlands for twenty years. His may be separated, but his home, his work, his life, has been in Amsterdam. With the wife taking the house, there may be little for him currently in Holland, but there’s even less in Scotland, and returning back will only open severe wounds with potentially dire consequences. Perhaps the coronary he experiences while running on that treadmill during the opening scene is better served by Britain’s National Health than Holland’s, but it’s never mentioned.

As expected, the film, the Edinburgh locales, the thick, uncompromising Scottish accents – unlike Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share, no subtitles to help American audiences – and the portrayals of those characters all wreak of authenticity. Why you would like them or want to be in their company is hard to say. At middle-age, they remain criminal, drug-addled and totally irresponsible, but John Hodge’s script and his characterization of them, backed by the lived-in, believability of McGregor, Bremner, Miller and Carlyle’s performances, pulls you in and makes you want to know what their next step is going to be. In particular, Bremner’s genial Spud develops into the most likable. Your sympathies can’t help but fall to him as he develops into the most personally honest, self-aware character out of the four.

T2 is about aging, and not always gracefully. But there’s more to it than that. Nostalgia can pierce the heart. Depending on your own habit of self-reflection, the life you’ve lived, the relationships you’ve had, the things you’ve done that you might regret, T2 Trainspotting will ultimately become something personal, relatable to all, but for individual reasons. It’s also one heck of ride.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 118 Minutes    Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Personal Shopper – Film Review

A mystery solved. In director Olivier Assayas’ 2014 drama Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart played Valentine, the personal assistant; a go-getter, errand-runner to a continental celebrity diva. During the third act, without explanation, the young woman mysteriously vanished. She never reappeared, and no one talked about it. It wasn’t a case of her character not appearing in the next scene; she literally vanished in the blink of Juliette Binoche’s eye on the side of a mountain.

In the French director’s new film, a haunting psychological drama, Personal Shopper, Stewart returns, and if you look for meaning in what seems an intentionally ambiguous story, you could always interpret it as being the same character. Here she’s called Maureen, and again, Maureen is an assistant to a continental celebrity diva, but there’s a difference. Her job is that of a personal shopper; she flits from one up-scale Parisian store to another, buying clothes, selecting gowns, and picking shoes for a demanding, international pop star, Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). That’s her day job.

At night she’s a spiritualist, a ghost hunter, and she’s looking for one spirit in particular; her deceased brother, Lewis. Both Lewis and Maureen had heart issues, and both agreed that whoever died first would return to contact the other. With effective, horror movie creepiness, when Maureen slowly walks through the rooms of a deserted mansion, she thinks she hears something. “Lewis?” she whispers. A faucet in the bathroom is running. “I’m gonna need more from you,” she insists after turning it off.

Events become stranger for Maureen when on a later visit, a malicious spirit actually appears, floating around above Maureen’s head, going in for the attack. It’s a harrowing experience for the young woman, which leaves her understandably shaken and fleeing from the house.

But the eeriness continues; not so much in the form of floating spirits, but via text messages. On a trip on a Euro Express from Paris to London, Maureen begins receiving messages on her cell from someone unknown. Lewis, perhaps? The first message reads simply, “I know you.” The second says, “And you know me.” Before Maureen has considered a reply, the third message states, “You’re off to London.” The messages continue to tease, pretending that the sender is there, on the train with her, observing from maybe a few seats away, but then her cell reads, “Just kidding.

Among the film’s occasional jolts and a few surprises, the biggest surprise of all is just how good Kristen Stewart has become. With her pale features and sunken, dark eyes, Stewart’s Maureen has the look of a young woman perpetually haunted, and it’s the best effect of the film. Her jittery manner as her nerves continue to fray play authentic. Later, when she enters an apartment and discovers a dead body, the moment is such a shock to her already shattered system she can’t think straight. Instead of calling the police, Maureen runs from the building, jumps on her motorcycle and flees the scene. It’s only later when she calls the authorities. Trying to defend her belated call and justify her illogical actions to a french detective may well be one of her best scenes ever.

But to explain what the film is really about is more difficult, though there’s always the interesting parallel to be made between Maureen’s two occupations; the personal shopper who works with the material during the day, the spiritual at night. When it was shown at the 69th Cannes International Film Festival, Personal Shopper was booed by the majority of critics, yet when it played later to an audience, it was greeted with a four minute standing ovation, such is the diversive reaction the film elicits. Promoting the film as a ghost thriller will never work for mainstream audiences looking for thrills and spills in their haunting, and as a psychological drama, looking for meaning when the film appears to have no intention of presenting one is just as frustrating; by the fade, nothing connects. But, oddly, it remains a story that intrigues, even if you sense it might be heading nowhere, and most of that is down to Stewart.

MPAA Rating: R      Length: 105 Minutes     Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Car Dogs – Film Review

When during the film’s opening few seconds, Phoenix car salesman, Mark Chamberlain (Patrick J. Adams) tells a customer, “Look, I know how people feel about car salesmen,” then adds, “Most of the time I understand,” the first thing that runs through your mind is, wait; most of the time?

Let’s be honest, even though at one time or another many of us have either worked in sales, or have had to deal directly with a sales department, if there’s one segment to the backbone of practically all industries that really irks a buying customer, it’s the car salesman. We know it; they know it; and they know you know it when you come in to buy. And the more you learn, the less you like.

In Car Dogs, the new drama from director Adam Collins – it’s billed as a comedy/drama, but it’s not; it’s a drama – all the tricks of the trade are revealed. Writer, ASU graduate and Scottsdale native, Mark King, himself a one-time car salesman, has pulled the curtain back revealing procedure, tricks and attitudes. “What is the number one rule of the car business, Scott?” asks his dealership boss when the salesman makes an error. Scott (Dash Mihok) knows the answer. “Buyers are liars,” he replies. Wow. So that’s how they think about us.

Car Dogs begins with chaos and rushes to the point where the clock has to stop. The Phoenix based Chamberlain Car Showroom appears to be in a state of panic as the sales team rush around, throwing insults at each other, desperately trying to close deals, while the owner, Malcolm Chamberlain (Chris Mulkey) is in his office, barking orders and making unreasonable demands. His son, Mark, is on the shop floor, trying to hold everything together, while Mark’s wife, Ashley (Stefanie Butler) is on the phone, trying to talk seriously with her young husband about a marriage that is soon to fall apart. “Today I’ve had to do some things I’m not exactly proud of,” he tells her, though at this point, what he’s had to do is not exactly clear. He begs her to let him finish the work day before talking any further, but she’s not having any of it. Then the clock stops, and things go into rewind. The day begins, and suddenly we see what has occurred to cause the building panic.

The car manufacturer back at corporate is about to open a new dealership in the valley, and boss Malcolm wants it. But in order to get it he has to have $300,000 in escrow by Monday. He can get $150,000 if he doesn’t pay his staff, but he needs the other half. His son, Mark wants to be the manager of that new dealership, so his dad gives his boy something to aim for, which includes firing one of the salesmen. “You hit 300 retail, sold and reported by five o’clock, and put a bullet in Scott’s head, then that new dealership is yours.” From that point, everyone who sets foot in the dealership is considered a stone, cold buyer.

Malcolm is that nightmare kind of boss who can justify everything he does by stating it’s just business, as if that somehow excuses him from acting like a monster. The banner on the wall of his sales department displays the motto, Whatever It Takes. Without a hint of irony, he insists that what he does, he does in self-interest, “Nothing more, nothing less.” His son, Mark, isn’t made from the same stock. He’s ambitious, sure, and his desire for having his own dealership is almost all-encompassing – he still fires Scott, whose wife is expecting, knowing that man has been a loyal worker for twenty years – but it’s eating at him from the inside. When Mark’s wife turns up at the store in the middle of the day to confront her husband, Mark tries to assure her that once the day is over, that target of 300 is reached and his dad gives him the management position at the new dealership, everything will change. But as his wife replies, “The new store shouldn’t be the catalyst for everything being different.”

The film’s marketing department has made the movie’s poster look upbeat and cheery, as if audiences are in for a whacky, fast-paced, comical ride, but there are no laughs in Car Dogs. These people, including Mark for whom we’re presumably supposed to root, are hugely unpleasant, knowingly playing around with customer’s minds and living up to that dealership motto of whatever it takes in order to close the deal. When Christian (George Lopez) is trying to get a hesitating couple to sign for a new vehicle, he steps aside and asks saleswoman Sharon (Nia Vardalos), “You up for a little Playhouse 90?” Together they play-act in front of potential buyers and pretend there’s another interested party about to sign for the same car. Christian is also training a newbie nicknamed Green Pea (Joe Massingill) and talks in terms of who is considered to be the lord of the Phoenix desert on the dealership shop floor, the gazelle or the lion. It turns out that Christian is not only the lion, but a lion who’ll happily eat his young if it means extra commission.

The most relatable characters are the various customers who are pounced upon they moment they enter the shop floor, including a brief guest appearance from Octavia Spencer who clearly knows when something is not right. Her scene in the office with Mark when he’s forced to come clean and talk in a clear, honest, matter-of-fact tone about car salesman gives the film its single moment of gravitas. Plus, the good news; by the story’s end, there’s a hope of redemption for the film’s central character, and the satisfaction of seeing those who deserve to get their comeuppance get it, particularly one toady character described by his colleagues as a neanderthal in a pinstripe who “backstabs to get his way to the middle.

For valley audiences, the locally recognizable locations add a big layer of interest. The film was shot in an abandoned dealership in front of the picturesque Papago Buttes, plus the opening credits make living in the desert appear so appealing. And knowing that several ASU grads and interns worked behind the scenes of the production elevates interest in the film’s production even further.

If you’ve ever wondered what a car salesman is talking about with his supervisor in the other room when he leaves you sitting at his desk after you’ve told him what you can and can’t afford, in Car Dogs you’ll find out. It’s like a magician who breaks ranks and tells you how the illusion was performed, much to the annoyance of the other performing magicians. Car salesmen won’t approve. Years ago, while negotiating a payment, I could see my salesman talking with his manager through the windows of a glass office. They were supposed to be talking about reducing the price to fit my budget; from an attempt to lip-read, I swear they were talking golf.

With characters not even their mothers would like, it’s difficult to enjoy the unfolding events in the way the film intends to entertain. If anything, the ultimate feel is one of sadness. With pressure from the top, you start to feel sorry for these people who go to these lengths to get you to buy, and worse, you feel even more sorry for yourself, knowing that at some time in the future you’ll have to re-enter their world. But at least, after seeing Car Dogs, you’ll have an idea of what they’re up to and how they’re doing it. Remember, when you get a number to go down, it can never go up. Take notes.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 104 Minutes    Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Jesus Christ Superstar – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

It began as a single in 1969 called simply Superstar and received the blessing of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop even wrote the original liner notes on the cover of the single’s British release. Despite the false rumors that it was banned by BBC radio, the Murray Head song, recorded with the Trinidad Singers, was a hit and paved the way for a concept double album that told a story. It took more than a year for composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice to compose, record, and reshape their 1970 rock opera, now with the full title of Jesus Christ Superstar, and almost instantly the double album became a smash.

Both Lloyd Webber and Rice said that when writing the piece they had always intended it to be an eventual score for the theatre, but the libretto came with neither stage notes nor direction, which is how it remains. Staging the piece with only the lyrics as a guiding text allows the luxury for a director to interpret the theatrical version in any way he or she desires, which is exactly what Broadway director Tom O’Horgan did to excess when it first opened theatrically in 1971. Unfortunately, the show received mixed to negative reviews, it’s most damning comment coming from Lloyd Webber himself. He described it as a vulgar travesty. “I hugely objected to the original New York production,” he said, adding, “It was probably the worst night of my life.

Since then, through the decades, Jesus Christ Superstar has gone through countless interpretations in its setting, usually miles away from its most obvious staging (a desert) and has ended up set in some of the most abstract, theatrical designs imaginable. The new ambitious and undeniably audacious production, now playing at Peoria’s Arizona Broadway Theatre until April 16, has a somewhat dystopian setting.

Set designer Aaron Sheckler’s nicely detailed design of an expansive, brick building, full of windows, archways, and wooden stairs, littered with all kinds of assorted, metallic junk, appears like a post-apocalyptic version of Catfish Row, complete with the framework of a train trestle that doubles as a lengthy balcony, stretching from stage left to stage right. Michaela Lynne Stein’s costume designs coupled with Amanda Gran’s wig and make-up complete the overall feel of an abandoned, somewhat anarchic society looking for leadership. For the most part, the ensemble appears as though they might have stepped out of a cult-like Mad Max movie (while the show’s vengeful villains, Caiaphas (Jason Plourde) and Annas (David Brumfield) wear what looks like Maleficent’s horned head-covers from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty). Even the glittery angels singing backup to the show’s most famous title number sport celestial looking mohawks. It may work for some audience members who thrive on re-imaged designs, but for others who like their Superstar a little more traditional looking, it may not.

And that will always be the issue with a show like Jesus Christ Superstar. If you already know the piece and have a fixed idea on how it should appear, then new interpretations won’t always live up to what you hope to see. Some stagings surpass expectation, others never take off. With this production, however, it’s not the setting that’s the issue.

The opening number, Heaven On Their Minds, was always meant as the inner thoughts and concerns of Judas (Shawn W Smith) as he ponders from afar the issue of Jesus (a decidedly earth-bound Brett Travis); a man he loves but worries that his rise in popularity with the crowds is resulting with a teacher becoming too big for his sandals. Here, as interpreted by director Kiel Klaphake, the song is sung directly for Jesus to hear, who responds to Judas with anger and lots of dismissive arm waves. It feels odd. In fact, Jesus reacting angrily to everything Judas says feels odd. For the preacher of peace and forgiveness who asks his followers, “Why are you obsessed with fighting?” to forcibly grab Judas by the collar, push him back, throw him to the ground, and at one point raise a clench fist as if to pummel his face, seems a wrong direction for the production to take. So, too, is the new addition of having Judas shoot heroin.

Lyricist Tim Rice always had Judas’ feelings of overwhelming guilt come from a realization that what he thought was supposed to be a right move went horribly wrong, which is what leads to his eventual suicide. Here, it’s Judas’ drug-addled mind, releasing horrific, cackling demons that sends the misbegotten disciple over the edge. There’s also unexpected horror to be experienced during the crucifixion. Loudly hammering nails into Jesus’ hands while the man screams in agony, his legs wildly flailing, then having those screams continue as Jesus is hoisted feels less Lloyd Webber and more Mel Gibson.

Musically, Kevin Finn’s direction sticks close to the original rock arrangements. Despite abrasive sounding moments that were always part of Lloyd Webber’s compositions, the band often pulsates with that same excitement felt on early album plays, but the singing is another matter. Actors with good musical theatre training may be able to find and express the musical nuances of Sondheim or Schwartz, and there’s certainly plenty of musical theatre talent in this cast, but that doesn’t automatically qualify them to sing rock like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant or Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan (the original Jesus of the concept album). During some of the quieter passages, the cast sound perfectly fine and the clarity affecting – the ensemble in songs like What’s The Buzz, Hosanna, and Could We Start Again Please? are particularly effective and strong – but once those emotionally expressive rock and roll vocal histrionics kick into full throttle and cast members let loose, the abrasive often turns into screech.

Kurtis W. Overby’s new choreography is lively and adds plenty of visual excitement to the disciples and various ensemble followers, often depicted in previous theatrical productions as people simply standing around while doing little more than shrugging at each other and throwing in backup vocals. Here, Overby’s high-energy moves gives the cast plenty to do, which ultimately becomes the most engaging aspect of the show. Though it has to be said, having the black-clothed lepers leaping all around the stage with the vigor of the physically fit while they’re meant to be crawling pathetically out of the woodwork, desperately looking for healing, really is something of an overreach.

Pictures courtesy of Scott Samplin

Please note: The role of Mary Magdalene will be played throughout the show’s run by four performers on varying dates (shown below)

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