`Superstar' a super start for new theater company

Top Hat stages a striking, contemporary rendition of an ageless story of Christ


Arundel Live

Arts and entertainment in Anne Arundel County

August 12, 2005|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Top Hat Theater Productions - the new company founded by Jeffrey Glenn Hitaffer and Jamie Hanna - is off to a spectacular start with its debut production of Jesus Christ Superstar at Chesapeake Arts Center's 900-seat Main Theater.

Hitaffer and Hanna's company goals are to create musical productions filled with great singing, dancing and acting and to feature imaginative staging with precision lighting and sound.

They met all of their goals in this contemporary Superstar, which boasts some of the most imaginative staging seen at Chesapeake Arts Center, where it has usually involved placing sets on each side of the stage for predictable and prosaic scene changes.

This production uses a horizontal, bilevel, simply framed metal set with vertical end structures to form an integrated unit that spans the full stage width and soars as high as the lighting system. These levels provide for simultaneous action to lend drama. At least five strategically placed large monitors along with several smaller ones contribute to the mystique and add excitement with their constantly changing images.

As the play opens, our attention is drawn to the monitors displaying a numerical countdown followed by historical newsreel war images that include the 1945 dropping of the atomic bombs and the Sept. 11, 2001, destruction of the Twin Towers. Then, music starts emanating from the five-piece orchestra of keyboard, drums, guitar, bass and synthesizer placed at rear stage center.

This set becomes a bleak, urban space filled with people dressed in dark business suits, uniforms, and exotic and casual garb who stroll aimlessly, appearing almost zombie-like. At center stage is a homeless man in a wheelchair holding a "Without faith there is no hope" sign, who is largely ignored by the detached passers-by until Jesus touches him, and he stands and walks off to become a follower. This all-encompassing scene expressing current reality creates a powerful opening unlike any Superstar I've seen.

From the outset, this production of Jesus Christ Superstar moves Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1971 rock opera to the here and now. The familiar music is all there and generally well-executed, but the atmosphere is almost frightening in its portrayal of our contemporary world and the ills afflicting modern society.

With its debut offering, Top Hat Productions pushes the boundaries in terms of packing every scene with multilevel action that creates unique and exciting theater.

The fast-paced show is enhanced by transition lighting that spotlights individual characters. The stage is sometimes illuminated by shifting colors or black light for dramatic impact. Staging can also resemble what we might find at a rock show, with projected light patterns on the ceiling and a frenzy created by the music and by changing light patterns on a darkened stage filled with the moving color of hand-held glow sticks preceding Herod's scene.

Christian Jones is cast as Jesus and conveys the essential compassion, though he's somewhat short on charisma. Jones sings well, and delivers big-time in "Gethsemane," where he displays considerable vocal range and invests every note with heartfelt passion.

Called in after the original actor was unable to play Judas, Ronnie Schronce, with only three days' rehearsal, creates a memorable Judas.

Veteran musical actor Schronce has always done well with the standard Broadway repertoire, but here he is compelled to do rock, and he succeeds admirably in every number - from the opening song, "Heaven on Their Minds," to the Jesus-Judas duet "Strange Thing Mystifying" to the Judas, Annas and Calaphas trio performing "Damned for All Time/Blood Money" - as well as the title song. Schronce infuses every song with feeling, and he conveys his character's concerns for the dangers Jesus seems to be inviting to give a powerful portrayal of the tortured Judas.

Judson Davis gives a multidimensional portrayal of Pontius Pilate, defining him as a devoted father and husband in his kitchen; a torn public official compelled to make a horrendously difficult decision; and a cruel police chief meting out punishment.

Tiffany Shannon becomes a warm, caring Mary Magdalene who brings comfort and compassion to her scenes, offering an immensely soothing "Everything's Alright" and a beautiful "I Don't Know How to Love Him."

Other fine principal players include Eric Eaton as Calaphas, Shane McCauley as Peter, Gare Edwards as Herod, Douglas Kotula as Annas, Anwar Thomas as Simon and Kristen Zwobot as She-rod (Herod's companion).

This Superstar puts Chesapeake Arts Center on the map as a viable theater space capable of mounting demanding productions. In depicting contemporary life, Top Hat has made some choices that require me to issue a warning about the graphic depiction of sex and violence, which would at the very least rate a PG-13 warning.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" runs tonight, tomorrow and Sunday at Chesapeake Art Center's Main Theater. Call 410-636-6597.

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