Metro-East Living

Explosive ‘Superstar’ is a dynamic start to Muny’s 99th year

Cierra Renee as Mary Magdalene, Bryce Ryness as Jesus and Constantine Maroulis as Judas occupy center stage at the Muny’s production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’
Cierra Renee as Mary Magdalene, Bryce Ryness as Jesus and Constantine Maroulis as Judas occupy center stage at the Muny’s production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ Provided

The Muny turns up the heat in an explosive and dynamic “Jesus Christ Superstar,” splendidly kicking off its 99th season.

Director Gordon Greenberg’s brilliant interpretation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s original rock opera, which runs through Sunday night, resurrects its power and emotional heft.

The vitality of this production’s vision, vocals, movement and technical work intensifies the urgency, which is palpable.

Originally a best-selling concept album in 1970 that remains a cultural touchstone, it was transformed into musical theater a short time later, marked by long-running revivals.

Cheeky young upstarts Webber and Rice imagined the last week of Jesus’ life through Judas’ point of view.

While loosely based on the gospels, the totally sung work emphasized the political turmoil of the Roman Empire era and interpersonal issues between a weary and wary Jesus and his confused disciples. The duo saw him as a man overwhelmed by his popularity, and the resulting tugs and tussles.

Here, Judas believes that all of them will suffer as dissidents, unless Jesus changes his approach about defying Rome. And both the high priests and authoritarian Romans are updated in fascist regime outfits, complete with red arm bands.

While some thought the show blasphemous 47 years ago, others welcomed a different look into the New Testament. And the music vividly pulsated with a range of tones, themes and unforgettable guitar riffs.

Throughout the years, creative teams have re-imagined those early 1970 Biblical efforts to suit their theatricality — taking different approaches to “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Godspell” and “Superstar,” often with a carnival-showbiz atmosphere.

Greenberg minimizes the 1970s affectations by shrewdly infusing the piece with modern attitudes, plus a nod to current contemporary celebrity culture and uneasy political times.

He expressively shaped the show for the expansive space, aided by Paul Tate dePoo III’s rough-hewn scenic design that easily shifts to various settings in Jerusalem.

The ensemble’s energy, combined with a crispness and clarity in storytelling, is electric. Performers alternate as believers and doubters, and the dancing defines the action, more so than any other revival.

Choreographer Jon Rua ignites the stage with fluid hip-hop and go-go dancing, and it is glorious to watch. Rua, part of the original cast of “Hamilton” as assistant choreographer and also an alternate for Lin-Manuel Miranda, has designed flashes of movement to burst forth as organic happenings.

Each principal character imbues their roles with a ferocity. As Jesus, Bryce Ryness conveys layers of depth while showing the Son of God’s humanity and holiness.

Ryness, so impressive as Trunchbull in the “Matilda” national tour that played at The Fox, digs deep for the gut-wrenching “Gethsemane,” the garden scene.

Ten thousand people in the audience did not utter a sound as Jesus summoned the courage to do God’s will. The torture scenes, including “The 39 Lashes,” are demanding as well.

Constantine Maroulis, Tony nominee for “Rock of Ages” and a memorable American Idol finalist, scorches the stage with his fiery portrayal of Judas. He nails the wail in “Heaven on their Minds,” and showcases gritty vocals throughout the piece.

Soulful singer Ciara Renee makes Mary Magdalene’s signature songs “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Everything’s All Right” soar.

The trio exudes a tangible range of emotions, with tension evident between Maroulis’ Judas and Ryness’ Jesus, and mutual distrust between Judas and Mary Magdalene.

Fan favorite Ben Davis (Curly in “Oklahoma,” Emil in “South Pacific”) plays a strong Pontius Pilate but also projects a more conflicted governor of Judea than we usually see.

Christopher Sieber is amusing as slick Vegas showman-styled King Herod, channeling Tom Jones in his heyday. The kitschy “Herod’s Song” doesn’t dwarf the show’s overall message, though.

As the ominous opposition, Nicholas Ward has an extraordinary deep bass as Caiaphas and Mykal Gilmore is a formidable Annas.

Some productions can get carried away with the glitz, but while the brash “Superstar” number beats with pizzazz, we still have a tortured spirit of Judas trying to put things into perspective.

The show is solemn where it needs to be, not forgetting the divinity.

The drama is at times big, bold and bright — a spectacle, emphasizing the “Superstar” aspect of Jesus as reluctant pop icon — and then also haunting and hushed in intimate moments.

Greenberg has seamlessly integrated elements to unify a show throbbing with rhythm and passion.

A very special component is the music direction of Colin Welford, who robustly conducts a first-rate pit orchestra. Those familiar chords are delivered vibrantly, sending chills with the first notes.

And Nathan W. Scheuer’s lighting design — always noteworthy — is stunning in concept and execution.

This is only the fifth Muny production of the 1971 musical, and while there are noticeable tucks and trims, its distinctive stylings and poignant moments will be mentioned for years to come.

The Muny has raised the bar once again. A year before the centennial celebration, director and executive producer Mike Isaacson is stressing the unique experience we’ve come to expect, reiterating the outdoor theater’s tagline, “Alone in Its Greatness.”

The Muny’s relevance is as evident as ever, as exemplified in this vivid retelling of a timeless classic that’s as good as it gets.

“Jesus Christ Superstar”

  • The Muny Opera
  • Through Sunday, June 18
  • 8:15 p.m.
  • www.muny.org
  • Box Office: 314-534-1111
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