CRT presents a musical of Biblical proportions with new production of 'Jesus Christ Superstar'

 Bryan Mittelstadt (Annas), Ryan Vona (Judas) and Tyler Grigsby (Caiaphas) in “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Weber.

Bryan Mittelstadt (Annas), Ryan Vona (Judas) and Tyler Grigsby (Caiaphas) in “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Weber.

The Connecticut Repertory Theatre once again knocked it out of the park with their new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's iconic musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Under the direction of Broadway star Terrence Mann (previously featured in the titular role in the CRT’s production of “Sweeney Todd”), this production heavily derives its visual style from the 1973 film adaptation by Norman Jewison, incorporating the film’s wild dance numbers and hippie inspired costumes. Even the ridiculously giant hats worn by Caiaphas and Annas in the film make their way onto the stage.

“Superstar” has always been one of the most complex and thematically interesting Broadway musicals, and thankfully none of its power is lost in this fantastic production. Instead of a simple retelling of the Passion (à la Mel Gibson), “Superstar” opts for a more introspective look, drawing greater attention to characters that were given little to no attention in the original biblical accounts. Characters like Judas, Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas move beyond their traditional villainous roles and are given clear motivations which are fully understandable and even tragic. Mary Magdalene is also elevated to one of Jesus’ closest friends and confidants, proving to be one of the most compelling characters in the entire musical.

Assistant Director Eddie Vitcavage discussed the musical’s nuanced characters. “Most people don’t really see Jesus beyond what’s on the page. Jesus was a man who was terrified of what was going to happen, and Judas just happened to be the one who, while continuing to support him, knew that he had to be the one to do it,” he said.

Webber also inserts many critiques of modern religion and mass culture, railing against consumerism and the media, and how those elements contribute to the downfall of morality and celebrity. Vitcavage mentioned that one of the major themes of the musical is society’s relationship with news media, specifically how we digest information and “what is truth.”

As a consequence of Webber’s creative decisions, many critics accused the play of being irreligious. Addressing these criticisms, Vitcavage explained that the musical makes good points on common questions surrounding many popular religions while still respecting the story of Jesus through a new perspective.

CRT’s “Superstar” features two powerhouse performances from equity actors Alex Prakken and Ryan Vona as Jesus and Judas respectively. Vona shines from the very first notes of “Heaven on their Minds,” delivering a very conflicted Judas who clearly has deep affection for his friend and mentor. Prakken gives a fairly nuanced portrayal of Jesus in the first act, but really comes into his own in the second half, giving a show-stopping rendition of “Gethsemane.” The raw emotion that he projects makes his portrayal deeply human, surpassing many others who have come before him. The production also features stand-out performances from Sasha Renea Brown as Mary Magdalene, Jonathan Cobrda as Pontius Pilate and Griffin Binnicker as King Herod Antipas.

Everything that you would want from these characters is here. Herod hams up his ragtime number, Pilate shows genuine regret at his decision and Caiaphas and Annas are sufficiently creepy.

The staging is another highlight of this production, creatively drawing the viewer into each environment with a limited set and cast. Two of the most memorable scenes were “The Temple” and “Judas’ Death,” providing expert use of lighting and movement to create a powerful, grandiose feeling that rivals any Broadway production. As Vitcavage said, “What you are seeing on stage as you hear these iconic numbers might not be what you expected to see, and that’s exactly what we wanted you to feel.” Every number manages to capture great energy, with interesting character moments occurring even during instrumental sections.

It is also worth mentioning the pit orchestra. Just like last month’s “Sweeney Todd,” they are once again able to deliver a tremendous feeling of bombast with only a few musicians. In fact, that seems to be the strength of any CRT production: taking minimal resources and using great ingenuity and strength of talent to make you feel as though you are watching a lavishly expensive production. While the lack of resources causes a few pitfalls here and there (specifically in the reuse of the disciples as both the Apostle Simon’s anti-Roman guerilla fighters in “Simon Zealotes” and the reporters in “The Arrest” which came off as a bit jarring and confusing), they hardly get in the way of the enjoyment.

I cannot recommend this production highly enough. Tickets are moderately priced, at only $15 for students, and the production value is equal to anything you can see in the best venues. This is one of the greatest renditions of the musical that I have seen (I should know considering that I’ve seen quite a few) and I will definitely be returning for a second viewing. If you enjoy rock music, great storytelling and fantastic acting, you should not pass this one up.


Evan Burns is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be contacted via email at evan.burns@uconn.edu