All-female ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at Music Mountain is must-see theater

By John Dwyer

I love when artists take chances. I love it even more where there is a theater that allows them to do it.

Often commercial considerations preclude theaters from taking risks. At least that is what sometimes happens. We are lucky to live in an area where several theaters try to do something new every once in awhile. Music Mountain Theater is doing something exciting.

After the recent live production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” with John Legend and the incredible Brandon Victor Dixon on television, I did not think there would be anything more to do with this piece. It did seem to be the definitive production that all others would be compared to. But, I did not think that a creative director like Richard Amelius would come along and make me rethink the piece and even rethink and refocus on what the story is about.

With an all-female cast, it challenges the audience in regards to gender roles. By getting out of the box of a period piece, whether in trying to recreate the original story told in the Bible or the original sound from the 1970 album or the 1971 Broadway musical, Amelius and cast have challenged our preconceptions.

When the album and then the musical came out back in the early ’70s, they were both seen as being sacrilegious and way too political. “Superstar” offended many in the older generation. Some Christians found it blasphemous. Some Jews found it antisemitic, as it portrayed Jewish priests as the ones calling for the crucifixion. But Jesus’s story was a political one and he challenged his time. Amelius is challenging his time and making us think. Too many productions play it safe. The songwriters Weber and Rice never intended that. This is a “Superstar” for now and provides for long conversations after you leave the theater and are driving home or going out for a drink to discuss what you just saw.

The idea of the show came from a New York actress, Morgan James, who had a dream about playing Jesus opposite Shoshana Bean as Jesus. A concert version was done in 2017 directed by Amelius with those actresses and a strong supporting cast of well-known New York talent. It is exciting that we get to have this production directed by the original director/producer. This was made possible due to his long relationship with Music Mountain Theater founders.

The cast is headed by Jill Palena as Jesus and Jenna Parilla as Judas. Both are excellent singers, who ably handle a challenging score but, even more challenging is the acting. They are not women playing men. Jesus and Judas are women. They are feminine. But, if God is kindness and love, then that should not be a problem. Kindness and love are seen by some (rightly or wrongly) as feminine characteristics. What may be more challenging for audience members is seeing those in power as women.

Deborah Peckman as Caiaphas has a voice that seems close to bass and was an exceptional — no monkey business high priest. Lauren Brader has a beautiful voice and, being a truly wonderful actress, brings nuance to Pontius Pilate, whose reluctance to crucify has never seem more real. The trial and 39 lashes was truly compelling. Erin Looney as King Herod was hilarious. This is as it should be and what you hope for. I enjoyed her so much more than Alice Cooper, who was a disappointment in the aforementioned televised production.

Jennifer Fischer was Jesus’s love interest, Mary Magdalene. Her “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” was all the more questioning, confusing and heart breaking in this new context.

Throughout the show, slide projections of famous women and famous events are used to show show how life has changed and yet has remained the same. You come away with an appreciation of all the great women throughout history who have sacrificed and have been the best — the best of who we are.

This show makes you think. I can not pay it a higher compliment.

You should go out and get yourself a ticket. This “Superstar” explores all different kinds of women. It is empowering. There are many surprises in store for you that I do not wish to spoil. You should discover them for yourself.

On the heels of the “Me, Too” movement, this show will spur a different kind of “Me, Too”:

“I just saw the all-female ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’”

“Me, too!”

And you will be glad that you did.

The show runs through Sept. 23, and tickets are available online.

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