From the Front Row by J. Michaels
Nestled in tree-lined suburban façade of Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge area lives a beautiful summer-stock style theatre in Christ Church. Within the picturesque wooden sloped ceiling and Tudor style frame, The Brooklyn Association of the Performing Arts and The Brooklyn Theatre Arts Project, Inc. presented a truly top-notch production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar.
Lloyd-Webber has become known for style-above-substance-works, but this is from a time when he was daring. Putting hope before hype, he created a quartet of masterpieces (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita, and Chess make the other three). Here he juxtaposed politics and the pulpit to create a truly enthralling work.
VERY simply, this rock musical – written in a time of upheaval in our own country – tunes in (pardon the pun) on a charismatic enlightened soul whose great good deed of bringing about change and spiritual growth create socio-political upheaval. Presenting this parable in its purest, the charismatic soul is Christ and the play is his last days.
Director Anthony Augello took an inspired path and depicted Jesus and Mary [Magdalene] as sort-of John Lennon and Yoko Ono figures, creating immense spiritual growth while enraging the “system” with their beliefs on world affairs. This is taken even further with an unapproving Judas dressed in a Sgt. Pepper-style jacket.
In the title role, rock performer and local celebrity George Tsalikis was commanding and vocally stunning. His obvious understanding of rock music made his work on the stage that much more authentic and enjoyable. His soft stature yet booming musical control perfectly communicated the depth of whom he was portraying. As his love interest – yes, love interest; Momo Kajiwara was gentle and grounded, presenting a confidence not often associated with the role. Kajiwara’s voice was lovely and hypnotic. Together they created “a power couple.” Director Augello placed them into a physical relationship complete with on-stage kisses and off-stage inferences. This infuriated Judas and undoubtedly many others – on stage and in the audience.
Dimitri Minucci as Judas was electrifying. It took him a scene or so to get his energy going but once there he was brilliant. In a wild beard and shaven head, looking like the lead singer in a wild rock concert, Minucci’s high-powered star-turn was the perfect foil to Tsalikis’ clean-shaven, boyish Christ.
The supporting players found the truth in their roles: the Temple Priests were all privileged men of means whose posture and power were evident. Leading the pack of politicians was Joseph Autuoro as Caiaphas. His strong demeanor and great stage presence depicted to us perfectly who these decision-makers were and why. The apostles were all sound actors presenting these holy men as simple guys innocent of all around them. This allowed their unwitting betrayals to be that much more heartbreaking. Two standouts were Dustin Cross as Thomas, whose angelic voice was a highpoint of the dark second act and Miguel Sierra adding just a little extra thought to his characterizations. Musical director Jake Lloyd and his full band (yup, full band) should be praised for shepherding the well-sung chorus through difficult harmonies. And Sherri Norige’s high stepping choreography was a delight.
The true standout of the supporting players was Rocco Buonpane as Pilate. A good production of Superstar understands that it is Pilate that sets world affairs in motion so a strong Pilate is a necessity. Rocco’s powerful voice cut through the hot summer air and his truly phenomenal stage presence gave Pilate the necessary thunder. It would be easy to smirk at Buonpane for his Wellesian hubris in taking a plum role as well as serving as executive producer, but after watching his work on stage and noticing the sold out crowd – some coming from Manhattan – it was obvious his head fits both hats.
The production sported a terrific set complete with lighted cross and stairs built into walls creating an Escher/Dali effect. The lighting was extremely well used giving color and isolation to all the right moments. Both were guided by director Augello, showing solid vision technically.
The production suffered only two sins. The production scheme of 60/70s turbulence could have gone even farther. When it was there it was excellent and truly inspired: the Hugh Heffner robe on Pilate; the faceless tribunal straight out of The Prisoner TV series; and the Ziggy Stardust hell for Judas were all quite brilliant but the same should have been done for Simon – played with gusto and a killer voice by Noah Brendemuehl – and maybe something different for the Pharisees. In black hats and prayer-style shawls (staying in those costumes and performing the final execution), this could be interpreted as a nod to Mel Gibson’s religious ideologies more than world changing 60/70s. The use of medallions on each cast member to explain character – again – was compelling and interesting – but some of the symbols may have created more confusion than description. Their use in the finale was really extraordinary and had the audience known what each symbol meant its impact would have been definitive.
The other problem was the intolerable heat in the theatre. The old structure – while gorgeous – did not allow for air conditioning, so the building was immeasurably hot for the audience and undoubtedly unbearable for the actors who needed to layer their lovely costumes, painstakingly built by Angela Campione, for quick changes. Sometimes emotional transitions were unclear or too fast most likely due to the distracting heat. Somebody please buy this great theatre an air-conditioner!!
Summer weather aside, the evening’s event was enthralling and enjoyable. Theatergoers laud regional settings like Shakespeare & Company or The Paper Mill Playhouse, but if you wish to have a truly enjoyable theatre experience in a regional theatre setting, just board the R train to Brooklyn and walk a brief three blocks toward the water. Look for the full parking lot and long ticket lines.
J. Michaels – known for his work as a stage director – runs the New York outlet of Wright Group Marketing & Communications; is director of public relations for The Bronx Opera, and is an experienced speech writer and marketing executive for several international philanthropies. He is a former professor of speech, media, and theatre and began his writing career in 1990 as a caption writer for The Daily News.