Rock musical provides walk down memory lane

For anyone who lived through the early 1970s, Thunder Bay Theatre’s current production of the rock musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” provides a walk down memory lane.

Fans of a certain age practically wore their “Jesus Christ Superstar” LP records out listening to the then popular Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice music from the show. If the packed houses attending TBT’s show are any indication, many are embracing the chance to hear those same memorable tunes again.

The cast and crew mounted the show with gusto. Some strong vocal performances, good choreography and lighting, plus an awesome group of musicians called the TBT Disciple Band, makes for an entertaining evening out. For those not up to speed on what the show is about, the plot is based loosely on the Biblical accounts of the final week in the life of Jesus prior to his resurrection.

TBT Artistic Director J.R. Rodriguez, who previously did the show on three other occasions, opted for some unconventional casting of traditional male characters, including Suni Travis as Judas Iscariot and Hannah Matzke as Herod. A number of the disciples of Jesus also were played by female actresses. The concept seemed to work, particularly with Travis, who adeptly portrays Judas with a questioning candor and a conflicted soul.

LeShawn Bell also successfully takes on the meaty role of Jesus. As the show is written, his very human Jesus is equal parts confused, doubting and angry to find himself heading toward death by crucifixion, though he ultimately accepts his lot. Bell shines in one of the two most moving ballads in the show, “Gethsemane.”

The other stirring ballad, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” is sung to perfection by the vocally gifted Caitlin Borke as Mary Magdalene. Bruce Michaud, with his deep bass voice, and Brian Heldt also do justice to the roles of Caiaphas and Annas.

Another particularly noteworthy number in the show is handled by Rodriguez as the ill-fated Pontius Pilate. His nuanced rendition of “Pilate’s Dream” demonstrates the depth of his instincts and talent.

A few kudos now for the Disciple Band comprised of Greg Adamus, Randy Bouchard, Kris Yachcik, Conor Larkin and James Daoust: These ultra-talented guys make the very difficult score of the show come alive. Though “Jesus Christ Superstar” is considered a rock opera, its diverse range of musical genres called for versatility, which the five musicians clearly nailed.

Choreographer Lara Dunleavy Torres came up with some fun dance sequences to go along with the music, including for the group number, “What’s the Buzz,” and the beach party-inspired “King Herod’s Song.” And who doesn’t remember the signature song from the show, “Superstar,” which the cast performs quite well?

One minor complaint which really isn’t anything new it’s good to know TBT has raised the necessary funds for a new sound system and plans to install said system by the summer season, because even with individual mikes, there were times when it was difficult to distinguish some of the lyrics on individual performances.

Rodriguez chose to dovetail the show with the Easter season, even performing sections of it at two local churches. When it first burst upon the scene in 1971, “Jesus Christ Superstar” ruffled plenty of feathers because of how it challenged time-honored religious convictions.

Those same challenges are still there today the relationship of Mary Magdalene still is painted as being much more than mere friend and follower of Christ. Judas still is the one whose story is told to gain sympathy. Jesus still comes off as an ineffectual, misguided leader who is somewhat surprised to be facing death, and his final scene also still stops short of the full Easter story.

Regardless of how people stand on those points, “Jesus Christ Superstar” gets people talking and thinking. It also gets them tapping their toes and remembering as they experience yet again the wonderful, nostalgic songs of two powerhouse lyricists/composers.

Only three more performances remain: Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For reservations, call the TBT box office at 354-2267.