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WHEREAS, the Rogue Critic is a known detractor of the ubiquitous Andrew Lloyd Webber, and WHEREAS, the Rogue — having heard from trustworthy people that his early stuff is worth a listen — went into Jesus Christ Superstar with an open mind, and WHEREAS, the Rogue was indeed not moved by the score of the rock opera, THEREFORE IT IS HEREBY DECREED that the Rogue harbors a black, sucking void in her heart where her love for Webber should reside. Caveat emptor, if you will.

The production now at the Encore Musical Theatre Company has a number of clear strengths. With a cast of twenty-six, staging by directors Daniel C. Cooney and Barbara F. Cullen and choreography by Kristi Davis provide constant visual stimuli without once crossing over into clutter. Thanks in no small part to the set design by Toni Auletti (whose combination of arid boulder backdrop and modern scaffolding looks like a funky archaeological dig), stage pictures are consistently dynamic and thoughtful. A thrilling wordless prologue, inspired by the Stations of the Cross, is made even more memorable by use of an effectively jarring strobe light, which recurs as the same moments play out again later. The strong ensemble helps fill the stage with energy, and some of the voices — my favorite the inhuman tenor of the priest Annas (Andy Jobe) — are exceptional. At the center of the show, Aaron LaVigne is a magnetic presence, making it easy to understand what the fuss is about.

The story, for the few not already familiar with it, is pretty straightforward. There's this phenomenon called Jesus Christ (LaVigne), whose cultishly devoted followers, among them the ill-reputed Mary Magdalane (Mia-Carina Mollicone), treat him like a prophet and become increasingly convinced he's the son of God. As careful as he is not to confirm that notion, Jesus also conveniently fails to deny it. The religious elite don't like their authority to be threatened, and JC's friend Judas (Cooney) scorns the man for believing his own hype; eventually, the imposing priest Caiaphas (Michael Lanning) convinces Judas to hand Jesus over to them. After the Last Supper, the action builds to a vicious climax: Jesus is arrested, hapless Pontius Pilate (John Sartor) and oddball King Herod (Keith Allan Kalinowski) pass the buck in an attempt to avoid culpability, and finally the fallen superstar's turncoat followers shout "Crucify him!" enough times that Pilate must accede. It's all told in a string of musical numbers that pinball (as do costumes by Thalia Schramm) along a spectrum from Hair to Cabaret.

What is not so easy to discern, at least in this production, is what makes the above a fresh perspective on the Biblical story. Perhaps the strong visuals of the Stations of the Cross lent a reverent streak to a staging in which LaVigne appeared positively beatific in contrast to Cooney's brooding leather jacket–clad outsider. Undoubtedly, the frequent auditory battles between vocals and band and some distracting microphone feedback had me missing several lyrics and, by extension, the subtleties of the characters' motives. Contributing to this challenge was the surprising percentage of principal and supporting players whose voices were clearly bested by the challenging libretto.

Rock music and anachronistic costumes aside, this staging is certainly faithful — double meaning intended — to the conventional version of Jesus's last days. Viewers drawn to epic productions will likely connect with the saturating visuals, and the cast's enthusiasm and drive may be sufficient to render its auditory shortcomings forgivable. With its sights far outshining its sounds, the production was not so strong as to win over this staunch Webber anti-fan, but for devotees of the composer or this particular story, it's a crisp and potentially moving two hours of spectacle.


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