There's something rather extraordinary going on at the Clark Street Playhouse just north of Crystal City five times a week — a production of the original rock musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" like none other you are likely to see.
The Open Circle Theatre, in its first Virginia production, has taken the venerable piece and given it a modern election-year twist through a fascinating overlay, without making any change at all to the original script and lyrics.
That the production is unique is understandable, as Open Circle is a unique theater company. Its mission is to produce theater works utilizing the abilities and talents of artists with disabilities. In "Jesus Christ Superstar" the effect is immediate and lasting.
Jesus is played by Rob McQuay, who uses a wheelchair. That chair hasn't kept him from performing at a wide range of theaters in the Washington area. In fact, he's twice been nominated for the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a musical. His booming voice, mobility as he spins the wheels of his chair and energetic performances keep the emphasis on what he can do, never on what he can't.
Ability is the emphasis for this entire cast, not all of whom are disabled. Neither Lindsay Allen as Mary Magdalene nor Matt Conner as Judas have visible handicaps, but both have powerful voices and great acting abilities. Allen's "I Don't Know How to Love Him" is as well acted as it is sung, making it an emotionally affecting scene, while Conner's "Damned For All Time" is also a smashing combination of song and emotion.
SOME OF THE IMPRESSIVE performers do not speak. Vocal back-ups and shared duties to sing vocally and simultaneously sign using American Sign Language, in something of the manner of the recent Broadway revival of "Big River," ensure that not one word or note of the piece is missing.
Indeed, the team of the signing Shira Grabelsky and her vocal
counterpart Dave McLellan, both playing one of the Jewish officials, makes the role's contribution to the full story even stronger than it usually is when performed by a single singing actor.
It isn't just the use of performers with disabilities that makes this an
extra-ordinary production, however. There is also the success of the
director's unorthodox concept for the production. Over the years, so many productions of so many plays have imposed an entirely different time or place or theme on an existing work. Think of all the plays of Shakespeare that have been set in Nazi Germany, the roaring twenties, the American west or the like. Often such tinkering diminishes the original.
Here, however, director Suzanne Richard has re-envisioned the play in a way that adds depth and richness to the piece without doing any damage to the 35-year-old composition, making it just about as eye-opening today as it was back when it was the second wave of the "British Invasion" triggered by the Beatles. The title "Jesus Christ Superstar" was used instead of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's original working title of simply "Christ" because of the world-wide backlash to John Lennon's famous observation that the Beatles
had become "more popular than Jesus."
In the production, the costumes, the set, the staging and Grady
Weatherford's well-produced videos are used as clear visual cues to place Jesus Christ in America during the current election, where, as a third party candidate, he overtakes both Bush and Kerry. This, of course, cannot be tolerated by the powers-that-be.
ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER'S music is clearly and carefully presented in all its rock-infused energy under musical director Tracy Olivera, whose five-member band lays down a very solid accompaniment. In her work and in the choreography by Fred Michael Beam and Stefan Sittig, abilities are again emphasized over disabilities. Just look at and listen to the performance of Selene Faer Dalton-Kumins, who dances with her motorized wheelchair and sings a lovely quatrain in "Could We Start Again, Please" opposite a marvelously full voiced JP Gulla as Peter.
Not all the effects work and at least one scene, the misstaged "King
Herod's Song," falls flat. Other unorthodox efforts work quite well, such as turning Pilate's interrogation into a television interview — again, without any change to the text. Of course, it helped that Pilate in this production is the adventurous Rick Foucheux, who recently rocked as an Elvis impersonator in Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's "Cooking with Elvis." Foucheux may be no singer, but his approach to the "song" is so dramatically compelling that he is a major strength in a production brimming with strengths.
<ro>Where & When:
<lst>"Jesus Christ Superstar" plays Wednesday - Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through Oct. 17 at the Clark Street Playhouse, 601 South Clark Street. Tickets are $20. Call 800-494-8497 or log on to www.opencircletheatre.org.