Magic Time!: ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at Signature Theatre

There’s an extraordinarily tender and touching moment in Signature Theatre’s ebullient Jesus Christ Superstar when Mary Magdalene (Natascia Diaz), after singing her gorgeous ballad “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” snuggles alongside the sleeping body of Jesus (Nicholas Edwards), her backside to his front, and wraps his arm around her shoulders.

OMG Mary and Jesus are spooning.

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Natascia Diaz (Mary) in Jesus Christ Superstar at Signature Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The moment was breathtaking, and I happened to have a very intimate view of it. I was seated in the Max theatre balcony, and I was directly overhead, almost with them in bed. Typically reviewers write about a show from an omniscient point of view, as if what they saw is what everyone will see. So although the critical consensus on this Jesus Christ Superstar has been a chorus of praise, the full significance of Signature’s immersive staging of the show has gone relatively unremarked: With the audience seated right up close three quarters way around the stage, both in the orchestra at actor eye level and in the dress circle at bird’s eye level, everyone gets a very different show.

My perch on high offered some other cool observations that might not jump out for folks below. Seeing Scenic Designer Luciana Stecconi’s set from above, for instance, made its cross shape unmistakably auspicious. And watching Karma Camp’s choreography and Director Joe Calarco’s blocking, I could see the cast in swift-shifting patterns of spatial motion that were their own kaleidoscopic display.

The cast is big. Ten actor-singers play named characters; another eight singer-dancers comprise an ensemble called Apostles. They all have amazing voices; their singing has been roundly lauded for good reason. And they fill the stage with what can seem dizzying energy. The beauty of watching from above, though, is that one can spot and follow with unobscured clarity individual performances that stand out, such that they can seem to be telling their own story. To give just three examples, the Apostle Vincent Kempski is particularly arresting, as is Michael J. Mainwaring, who plays Peter and whose dancing throughout is extraordinary. And Sherri L. Edelen, whose turn as Herod is the show’s comic highpoint, is also great fun to watch as a super trouper in the singing-dancing chorus

But blessed are the people in the balcony, for they shall find their own faves.

Nicholas Edwards as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

No seat in the Max is a bad one; no seat is all-seeing either. Much as I enjoyed my vantage point, the production sometimes verged on frenetic, its moments of emotional focus lost in hustle and bustle. And I imagine Jason Lyons’s lighting design did not look from downstairs at all as busy as it did from up. Patterns of light swept and swam in a flurry all over the floor with an overmuchness that called attention to itself way more than it would at stage level.

But there may be a greater message in Signature’s superbly theatrical staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, one that is implicit in the book and lyrics but that becomes uniquely incarnate at the Max. People’s points of view on the production in that environment will necessarily be dramatically different and disparate. Not unlike people’s points of view on the title character in real life.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

Jesus Christ Superstar plays through July 9, 2017, at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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