Director Jeff Ashcraft's vision for Countryside Community Theatre's Jesus Christ Superstar is clear from the very beginning. As the orchestra, under music director Keith Haan's capable leadership, plays the overture to composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's and lyricist Tim Rice's gospel story, images of recent religious, political, and social figures and world events are projected on a large screen. It's as if Ashcraft is saying that these are the reasons we need a savior (e.g., terrorism), and that these are the vessels through which Christ's message reaches the world (e.g., Mother Teresa). Ashcraft not only modernizes the story's setting - aided by designer Emilee Droegmiller's present-day costumes and the use of cell phones, tablets, and video cameras throughout - but immediately makes the case for a modern need for Jesus Christ.
However, once that message is clear, Ashcraft makes Judas (Thomas Brooke) the hero of his tale, and diminishes the role of Jesus (Jason Gabriel) in its telling. Here, Gabriel's Jesus, dressed in brown cargo pants and a white hoodie, is laid back, but also, in a mild-mannered way, rather egotistical. Meanwhile, Brooke's Judas - sporting a button-up shirt, tie, and vest over jeans - is portrayed as a good friend to Jesus, the kind who admonishes in sincere concern for his friend's well-being when pointing out Jesus' hypocrisy, as when he lets Mary Magdelene (Kelly Rose Thompson) "waste" a bottle of expensive perfume washing Jesus' feet. Brooke's Judas isn't a spiteful betrayer, but a man struggling to keep his friend "on message" rather than live in a "do as I say and not as I do" manner. Consequently, I found myself sympathizing with Judas far more than I did Jesus, with Gabriel's mildly angry, subtly self-important Christ leaving me feeling nothing for him during the usually emotional "Gethsemane," number, and even during his crucifixion.
Brooke, however, intrigued me from beginning to end. Though no one in Ashcraft's production has a rock voice matching the requirements of this rock opera, Brooke comes closest, with occasional rock aesthetics heard in his vocals. It's his layered portrayal, however, that shines brightest. Brooke's Judas struggles in deciding to betray his friend, and even when he turns Jesus over to the authorities, hoping to stop the egoist from further straying from his determined path, Judas doesn't give up on Jesus. (Showing facial evidence of regret, this Judas quietly yet frantically attempts to "coach" Jesus during his trial in an effort to prevent the death sentence.) While I didn't feel anything for Jesus, I lamented Judas' death here, and empathized with his questioning - "Why'd you choose such a backwards time in such a strange land?" - in the song "Superstar," which is accompanied by choreographer Constance Bracey's 1970s-backup-dancer moves for the chorus and designer Josh Tipsword's flashing, rock-concert lighting.
I also felt for Thompson's Mary. With nuanced sincerity, Thompson plays the part as though Mary and Jesus are a couple past the excited-infatuation stage and into the comfortable point where rubbing his shoulders is just a natural action within their relationship. While her pitch was a bit off during Friday's "I Don't Know How to Love Him," Thompson sold the number with her emotional undertones, expressing regret as she sang "I've had so many men before," and switching to a feigned dismissal on "He's just one more," as if trying to convince herself.
This production's show-stopper, though, is Brant Peitersen's King Herod, and although he appears in only one scene - Herod's song staged as part of a late-night talk show titled Religiously Incorrect - Peitersen runs with it. Showcasing incredible charisma, Peitersen earned thunderous applause as he dropped one joke after another during his lyrics' musical breaks. This included an ad lib after Peitersen tossed a note card over his shoulder and it landed in a perfect position, resting against his microphone as if purposely placed there for Peitersen to read; not missing a beat, Peitersen turned to Gabriel and said, "Did you do that?" I enjoyed Peitersen's dynamic performance so much that I wished we were seeing King Herod Superstar. (His scene, unfortunately, was also the only one significantly marred by Countryside's perennial sound issues, with Peitersen's microphone cutting in and out throughout his song.)
I also wish Michael Alexander, with his near-perfect vocals as Peter, were featured in a larger role. And that Crista Ashcraft's powerful CEO of a Caiaphas had more stage time. As is, though, the Countryside's Jesus Christ Superstar is a worthy, commendable effort.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs at the North Scott High School Fine Arts Auditorium (200 South First Street, Eldridge) through June 28, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)285-6228 or visiting CCTOnStage.org.