Review: Jesus Christ Superstar at Just Off Broadway

By Kara Bauer

DISCLAIMERPlease note, one or more persons directly involved in this production are members of the staff of Backstage Baltimore. This individual or persons did not write or participate in writing this review. The only editing performed on this piece was for grammar, punctuation, and organization. No content editing (adding, changing, or omitting words) were completed without the expressed permission of the author.

(l-r) Jim Gerhardt as Judas and Luis “Matty” Montes as Jesus of Nazareth. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Jesus Christ Superstar, a story that is familiar to some, while at the same time refreshing and new for a younger generation continues to tell the story about Christ’s final days before his death and resurrection. It’s message about the plight of the poor and underprivileged resonates just as strongly as it did when it first premiered on Broadway in 1971. Just Off Broadway’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock musical, Directed by Jason Crawford Samios-Uy and Patrick Jay Golden, with Music Direction by Patty Delisle, and Choreography by Katie Gerstmyer, comes alive on the Baltimore stage. Despite the small space and minimalistic set design, this show packs a punch for audiences of all ages. What it lacks in appearance, it certainly more than makes up for it with its talented cast of performers. This show truly had all the components of a strong performance: Strong vocals, imaginative choreography, and powerful acting.

As soon as the lights come up, the audience is very aware of the urgency that Caiaphas mentions when speaking about the dangers that Jesus poses to their Roman traditions and ideals. Five men emerge in darkness with masks and riot gear. The familiar chord progression reverberates in the ears of the audience as a fight begins over Jesus’ presence in Rome. Audience members get to meet Judas, played by Jim Gerhardt, for the first time in this scene. As an audience member, hearing Judas sing the first vocals of the song really drew me in. Gerhardt is extremely talented; his voice and acting are mutually impeccable. On the other side of the stage, we see Jesus, played by Luis “Matty” Montes, emerge from the crowd of believers. An overwhelming sense of foreboding fills the air of the theatre– The harmonizing voices, the presence of Caiaphas and the other High Priests, along with truly haunting accompaniment by Patty DeLisle and the orchestra sets the tone for the entire show in the first few moments.

Jennifer Lutz as Mary Magdalene and Luis “Matty” Montes as Jesus of Nazareth. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Throughout the show, the audience has the chance to see many different kinds of choreography under the direction of Katie Gerstmyer. I applaud Gerstmyer in her foresight and structure of the choreography– it was structured enough to look uniform but freestyle enough that each ensemble member was able to create their own character choices throughout the production. For instance, in the beginning of the show, the audience can clearly see that the cast is filled with strong dancers. Even those who are not the most skilled still had space to create a character that perfectly accompanied their artistic dance choices.

Soon enough, the audience gets to meet the highlight of the show, Mary Magdalene, played by Jennifer Lutz. Lutz’s voice provides a strong and clear contrast to her male counterparts. She carries the role with poise, gusto, and so much dedication. She is constantly engaged in her craft– no matter what is happening on stage she remains engaged and dedicated to the scene. It was refreshing to see such vibrant chemistry on stage between Jesus and Mary– you can clearly tell that both actors have put in the time to create dynamic and powerful relationships with each other.

The tones of Mary’s voice fade away and are replaced by the deep, smoky tones of Christ Thomas’ interpretation of Caiaphas, the High Priest. Thomas is a truly terrifying entity on stage with his band of not-so-merry men. The entire group of High Priests (Dave Gerstmyer, Nick Ruth, Randall Noppinger, and Lee Knox) take their role seriously which only adds to the ominous mood set by music.

Josh Leach as Simon with Ensemble in the back. Credit. Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

During the song “Hosanna”, the ensemble proves its true ability as vocalists. The harmonies that they create together on stage are extremely clear and crisp in their execution. Unfortunately, I was so distracted by the strange lighting choice during the second half of that song that I was not able to focus on the music or story. I felt that this lighting choice was very out of place– the song “Hosanna” is all about Christ being willing to fight and die for his followers. Meanwhile an upbeat style lighting was occurring above the stage; the shifting blue-yellow floral lighting was too upbeat, and took me out of the scene.

A refreshing voice came from Simon, played by Josh Leach, during “Simon Zealots / Poor Jerusalem” I was forced to stop taking notes just so that I could soak up Leach’s soulful voice. His spellbinding serenade to the audience combined with the vivacious music provides a clear contrast to Jesus’ foretelling of events in the second half of the song. Being only a Senior in Mt. Hebron High School, he still has a lot of time to perfect his vocal craft. I have no doubt that this young man will develop into a performer that is even more confident, capable and talented than he is now.

Luis “Matty” Montes as Jesus of Nazareth. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Throughout each interaction and glance, the audience witnesses the expansion of the void which continues to widen between Jesus and Judas. Both actors add to this conflict in their own unique way, whether it be stolen glances, interactions with other characters or face to face moments– it is obvious that both Gerhardt and Montes are dedicated to the storytelling that they began.

As the show continues on, we meet Pontius Pilate, portrayed by Mike Zellhofer. He emerges from the back of the theatre and walks forward to Jesus as he contemplates his dream that foretells his interaction with a Galilean. Zellhofer has a very unique voice; both soft and contemplative, while at the same time possessing a fervor that touches the audience in an emotional way.

Jim Gerhardt as Judas. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

The temple scene was as fitting as it was haunting, the lighting enhanced Jesus’s reaction to the tide of humanity that even he seemed powerless to redeem. While the efforts made by the cast were very convincing in this scene, I was distracted by some cast-members who interacted with stage props in a less convincing way, such as when several actors hid underneath the stairs leading up to the stage. Despite this, the audience can still feel how overwhelmed Christ is when the sick come to visit the temple, and his reaction is both moving and palpable.

There is a sense of urgency when Mary dives to catch Jesus–she sings her familiar voice as the sick clear the stage. Lutz reaches the climax of her song with gusto, confidence and poise. She reaches notes with strength–truly serenading the audience. Meanwhile, Judas’s inner conflict is displayed clearly when he goes to the high priests. Here the lighting is both effective and immersive, as is the feeling of when Judas betrays Christ–here again his emotions are palpable. His sadness is a weight that is felt clearly by the audience, and is also enhanced by the eerie yet harmonious undertones of the ensemble’s “good old Judas” as the lights dim for intermission.

Mike Zellhofer as Pilate. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Overall the cast is enthusiastic, and while the costuming is simple it fits the punk and rockstar vibe that characterizes the show and distinguishes it from other adaptations. The talented vocal cast lends its hand in helping to bring the audience back in following the admission by delivering a beautiful chorus that tells the story of a people who drown their sorrows and grief in gentle pools of wine.

Judas and Jesus in this scene go back and forth, vocally competing, the clash of their worldviews acting out in person Jesus begins to doubt himself in his conversation with his Father. He is clearly troubled, and brings Jesus self-doubt and hate to life. It is here that Montes really displays his vocal range to the audience, and during this troubling monologue.

Following the arrest of Jesus at the hands of the Romans, King Herod, played by Atticus Emerson, provides a welcome comic relief to the conflict at hand. His performance is spirited, humorous, and lively, fitting the style and poise of the original piece. Following Herod’s performance, “Could we start again, please?” is by far the most beautifully simplistic and minimalistic piece in the second act. The harmony of Mary and Peter (played by Jeff Baker) was thoughtfully coordinated and stunningly done.

Cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

For those who know the story, we know and feel the weight of Judas’s death. I was brought to tears as Judas asks, “Does he love me too?” Judas knows what he must do, stating “My mind is in darkness now” as the music swells as the ensemble members in black lead him away, towards suicide.

The flogging of Jesus was so creative–this is a very controversial to address, let alone depict–yet Katie Gerstmyer–covered in blood, “lashes” Jesus’s back, while dancing to symbolize the whipping–truly the most intuitive way to show the 39 lashes.

Judas comes back adorned in white with angels in tow, asking “Jesus Christ, who are you what have you sacrificed?”. His reaction to his old friend’s death is simultaneously sobering yet striking, and also provides the chance for his character to stun the audience one final time with his voice.

Ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

The final scene where Jesus is put to the cross is particularly striking, Montes’ interpretation of Jesus’s shock and desperation at his fate at the hands of the Romans is strikingly and starkly human. It is here that we see Jesus standing inside the cross, weeping in fear, set to the near-demonic tone of the audience. With the lights suddenly going out, we see Jesus taken away into oblivion, removing him from the stage, and by extension, from his connection to the living.

In summary, I’ve seen many different adaptations of Jesus Christ Superstar, but for me it is the cast that makes this show what it is; the actors are clearly passionate, the musical direction is superb, and the directors have proved their creative abilities. The show has three more performances. Be sure to catch this buzz before it’s gone.

This is what I thought of Just Off Broadway’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Jesus Christ Superstar will run through October 21 at Just Off Broadway @ Epiphany, Epiphany Lutheran Church, 4301 Raspe Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21206. For tickets email tickets@justoffbroadwaymd.com or purchase them online.

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Review: Sweet Charity at Heritage Players

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 40 minutes with one 15-minute intermission

Most of us just want to be loved, right? I say “most” because there are some folks out there who are content and happy (or claim they are) without the love of others. However, this is not the case with the title character of Heritage Players latest offering Sweet Charity, with a Book by Neil Simon and Music and Lyrics by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, respectively. This production is Directed and Choreographed by Timoth David Copney with Music Direction by Mari Hill.

Briefly, Sweet Charity concerns itself with the romantic goings on of Charity Hope Valentine, a taxi dancer (a profession that teeters precariously on the line of prostitution) in a seedy dance hall in New York City. Her surroundings may be drab but Charity’s optimism, romanticism, and upbeat attitude seem to get her through tough times. She’s been dumped, robbed, and insulted by lovers and boyfriends but she still sees a better life for herself. She meets Oscar, a neurotic, shy fellow, is it possible she has found true love at last… or is the other shoe just waiting to drop?

Bailey Wolf as Ursula, Daniel Douek as Vittorio Vidal, and Katherine Sheldon as Charity, and Kamryn Polastre Scott as Doorman. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Set Design by Ryan Geiger is minimal but absolutely appropriate, using moving set pieces to represent various locations on a simple black stage. I don’t mind the black stage, but the stage is a bit unkempt with the use of sheets or curtains of different shades of black and different, ununiformed lengths which is a bit of a distraction. Overall, however, the set worked for this piece as there is heavy choreography and you don’t want a bulky set in the way of that. Geiger used his space wisely and the unkemptness may very well be a part of the design as a lot of the action takes place in the seedier-looking parts of New York City.

Andrew Malone’s and Lanoree Blake’s Costume Design is on point for this period, 1960s piece. Every stich of clothing on this ensemble is well thought-out and authentic to the time. The bright color palate, the styles and crazy prints, the hair… everything just oozed the mid to late 60s and I love it. Kudos to Malone and Blake for their efforts and superb design.

Mari Hill’s Music Direction is concise and she has this cast and orchestra sounding tight. Since quite a few of these songs are standards, it’s a good chance most or at least some of the audience will at least be familiar with the tunes but Hill doesn’t let that deter her and she has guided this ensemble to perform these songs well and true to the original compositions. The orchestra that has convened for this production is led by the able and well-apt Patty DeLisle, who doubles as both Conductor and Keyboards, sounds sweet and strong. The orchestra consists of: Will Zellhofer on Keyboards, Mari Hill, Matt Elky, Dan Longo, Katie Marcotte, and David Booth on Reeds, Erica Bright and Jon Bright on Trombone, Randy Whittenberger, Kevin Shields, and Allyson Wessley on Trumpet, Billy Georg on Percussion, Maxwell Kazanow on Guitar, and Thomas Jackson on Bass Guitar.

“I’m a Brass Band” with Katherine Sheldon as Charity and the Cast of Sweet Charity. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

It’s worth mentioning that Sweet Charity was given a successful 1969 film adaptation (depending on who you talk to) staring Shirley McClain and Chita Rivera (not to mention Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ricardo Montalbán) and directed and choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse. That being said it, it can be a challenge to recreate a well-known piece and present it in a fresh light. Timoth David Copney stepped up and took on this challenge not only as Director but doubling as Choreographer and his efforts are not in vain. Copney presented this piece in a more traditional setting, as written, and didn’t mess much with the original script/score. His choreography is impeccable and is prominent in moving the story along. For “Rich Man’s Frug,” it’s clear he makes an homage to the film adaptation with near exact chorography. On a side note, Libby Burgess (Lead Frug Dancer) tears up the stage with concise and tight movement that adds great value to this intricate dance number. He knows his cast and has created movement that makes them shine rather than hinder their performances. That being said, it seems Copney concentrated mainly on choreography (because it really is brilliant) and less on blocking and scene work. The pacing is a bit lagging, especially in lengthy scenes with most of the ensemble onstage, but still, the story is so cleverly written, the dialogue helps with the pacing. Handmade signs between scenes poking out of the side of the stage are a bit hokey and barely legible if you are more than three rows back, but, thankfully, their not too, too important to the production. Overall, Copney’s efforts are commendable are and are to be applauded as it seems he has a good comprehension of both the text and the story as a whole making for a good showing.

“The Richman’s Frug” with the Cast of Sweet Charity, featuring Libby Burgess. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, I’d be amiss not to mention that the entire ensemble of this piece gives 100% effort and is dedicated to this piece and all should be commended for their efforts, including Apollo, the beautiful and well-behaved canine who makes a couple of cameos and is an absolute natural!

Taking on role of Vittorio Vidal, the Italian movie star with whom Charity has a chance encounter, is Daniel Douek, and he fully embodies this suave, yet tender character very nicely and exudes that beautiful balance of debonair playboy and lovelorn schoolboy giving an authentic and thoughtful performance, especially in his featured number, “Too Many Tomorrows.” Oscar, Charity’s main love interest, is played by Adam Abruzzo who plays this neurotic, shy character near perfectly. Abruzzo may not be the strongest, vocally, but his portrayal is delightful and his comedic timing is spot on making for a charming performance.

Anwar Thomas takes on the challenging role of Daddy Brubeck, the charismatic leader of the cult-ish religion of the Rhythm of Life, but he pulls it off quite well. His performance is confident as he tackles the facets of this kooky character and though, vocally, he could be stronger, especially in his featured number, the high-energy “The Rhythm of Life,” what he lacks in vocalese, he absolutely makes up for and shines in his dancing. This man is no joke when it comes to a dance number and he makes each move look effortless making for a strong performance, overall.

Katherine Sheldon as Charity Hope valentine. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Katherine Sheldon takes on the title role of Sweet Charity, otherwise known as Charity Hope Valentine, our upbeat, hopeful heroine. Sheldon seems to have a tight grasp of this character and plays her to the hilt. She portrays a good blend of optimistic innocence and a lifetime of broken hearts very well and it’s that perfect blend that makes this character work. It’s easy to see she’s worked hard for this role and her solo dancing and comedic timing is on point. She gives a good showing, vocally, in such numbers as the standard “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “Where Am I Going?”, but struggles a bit with the higher notes. However, that could very well be the result of her intense concentration on choreography, which she nails. Overall, Sheldon is confident and dedicating, making for a strong performance.

One highlight of this production is Jim Gerhardt, who takes on the role of Herman, the proprietor of the seedy dance hall ii which Charity works. This character certainly has a rough exterior, but deep down, is a big softy who cares about the girls who work at the hall and Gerhardt knocks it out of the ballpark with his portrayal giving us that perfect character in his mannerisms, stereo-typical “New Yorker” dialect, and his authenticity. Vocally, he shines, both while speaking and his featured musical number, “I Love to Cry at Weddings.” Gerhardt is certainly one to watch in this show.

Megan Mostow as Helene, Ashley Gerhardt as Niki, and Katherine Sheldon as Charity. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Last but certainly not least, we have our hands down standouts Megan Mostow as Helene and Ashley Gerhardt as Nickie. These two ladies are superb in their roles and they work well off of each other making for a heartfelt and true performance that makes you want to be friends with both of them because you feel as though they’ll always have your back and that’s what makes a great portrayal. Mostow moves naturally onstage and embodies this character of Helene completely. Her delivery of the material is on point and it’s she’s comfortable with the character and has a strong presence making for a brilliant performance. Gerhardt, too, is confident and comfortable with and impeccable portrayal of this rough-around-the-edges character who has a heart of gold. Her dialect work is near perfect and she really has a good grasp on her character and her wants and needs.

Vocally, both actresses are powerhouses and their performances in numbers such as “There’s Got to Be Something Better Than This” and their featured parts in the popular and well-known “Big Spender” will make you stand up and take notice while the poignant “Baby Dream Your Dream” will have you near tears with their touching performance. Overall, Mostow and Gerhardt are two who bring this production to the apex and their dedication to their characters and the production as a whole is quite apparent. Kudos to both for jobs very well done.

Final thought…Sweet Charity is a fun romp through a colorful, jazzy bygone era of what seems like a simpler time with interesting fashion choices. The story is cute, but not extremely deep, but it’s witty and funny with a book by Neil Simon, so, you can’t go wrong! The music is damn catchy and a few of these tunes are recognizable standards and this production doesn’t skimp nor cut corners with the dancing. Most of the characters are relatable and it’s a piece with which anyone who has a love of theatre should be acquainted. I recommend checking it out! You won’t be sorry you did!

This is what I thought of Heritage Players production of Sweet Charity… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Sweet Charity will run through April 29 at Heritage Players in the Thomas-Rice Auditorium on the Spring Gove Hospital Campus, Catonsville, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.

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