On November 3, I attended a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar at The Granite Theatre in Westerly. This was the first show I had been to at the Granite and I was very impressed with the professionalism, execution and overall atmosphere created by Artistic Director David Jepson and his hard-working associates. With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar is often thought of a musical but it is really better described as a rock opera.
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Granite’s current vision of the piece, directed and choreographed by Lisa Clough and musical direction by Stephen DeCesare, has a quick pace with just enough theatrical embellishments (water turns to wine quite effectively and a formidable cross for the finale) to merit the production as top notch.
While the costumes and set design cannot be called lavish, these elements as presented are effective for the story. All the while, a certain intangible, nostalgic and warm feeling that can come with community theater done very well reminds the viewer that great art is attainable by anyone who puts the hard work and rehearsal hours required into the process.
After the show, the audience was invited to meet and mingle with many of the performers who greeted the audience both outside and in the lobby of the venue. I met Sean Byrne, who plays Jesus, and was amazed to discover that this was his first theatrical experience…ever! However, Mr. Bryne is quite comfortable singing professionally, as part of a tribute band for the classic rock band Foreigner called Merchants of Cool.
I had heard several songs by Merchants of Cool last August, after a CES MMA (mixed martial arts) event at Twin River Casino. My friend and I attending watched them perform several songs at Twin River’s open venue and we actually thought Merchants of Cool were Foreigner, they were that spot on in both sound and performance.
Mr. Byrne’s voice was level and he played Jesus as almost an every-man, destined to his fate, neither in awe nor afraid of it. Playing the role of Jesus is a challenge for any actor and there are many varied approaches; on top of that initial challenge, Mr. Byrne must also play Jesus through the eyes of Judas (played with passion and vulnerability by Michael Davis).
I then spoke briefly with Chris Maxwell, who plays Pontius Pilate, and has an excellent solo mid-way through Act One titled “Pilate’s Dream.” Mr. Maxwell, who now works professionally as a pharmacist in Cranston, told me he’s had a wonderful experience working with the Granite and that he’s wanted to act in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar since his days as a student at Cranston East High School, when the show originally gained world-wide popularity.
Mr. Maxwell told me he was thrilled to work with Clough and that she re-enforced to the cast of about twenty-five performers that “it’s an ensemble show.”
Mr. Maxwell told me the cast has been rehearsing about three days a week since July. The hard work has paid off. It is quite evident in the cohesion and stylistic performance demonstrated in the production. Even in some otherwise great theatrical shows, there can be a sense that some of the actors are not on the same page in approach to and exhibition of craft; however, that unfortunate phenomenon does not exist with Granite’s current production.
This is a tight-knit group with a true feeling of a seasoned cast and crew with great chemistry. Their talents do compliment each other, rather than contrast, which is highly important in live theater.
The theater venue itself is also a delight. The biggest thing for out-of-towners to be aware of is that there is only a designated parking lot for handicapped audience members. The rest of us have to find our own parking in the nearby community, which was not terribly hard on a November Friday night, but count on an extra ten minutes to park and walk over.
The lobby prides itself in its recent history, with many framed photographs of previous shows in the lobby, along with over-sized coffee table books about the history of theater. There are comfortable and cushy chairs in the lobby, and a snack bar with wine, beer, soda and bottled water available at moderate fees. Candy bars and so forth are also available. Credit to the hustling and friendly snack bar cashier, who handled concessions during intermission, while also appearing in the show herself without ever missing a beat!
Mr. Jepson’s greeting to the audience before the show was also well done. It began with the usual “please turn off your cellphones” reminders and so forth. Jepson delivered his greeting with a sincere appreciation for cast, crew and audience and enthusiasm for the rest of Granite’s season.
I did enjoy the show. I had not seen Superstar performed live, or the 1973 film version directed by Norman Jewison anywhere else before experiencing the Granite’s version, so the show’s content of Jesus’s last days of life from Judas’s perspective was new to me.
The action and intent of the actors are well played out, but like a show that is predominantly filled with sung (rather than spoken) lyrics, it can be a challenge to follow the dialogue. Those audience members who seek a deeper grasp of the story may wish to do their own research into the story before attending the show. For those, like myself, who prefer to enter as a blank emotional palette, no such research is necessary to enjoy the spectacle and performance talents of a very well executed and inspired evening of live theater.
Granite Theatre is located at One Granite Street, Westerly, RI 02891. Phone: 401-596-2341
Jesus Christ Superstar plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm through November 19, 2017. Allow yourself extra time to find usually free parking in the nearby area; handicapped parking is available at the theatre.
Box Office: Jesus Christ Superstar tickets