Gilda Wabbit & Alex Roby in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo: Matthew Pruitt
Jesus Christ Superstar
Music by Andrew Lloyd Weber, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Conceptualized by Tony Lewis and Jason Cooper
Directed and Choreographed by Tony Lewis
Musical Director Jeanne-Marie Rogers
Drag Daddy Productions and Chicken Coop Theatre Company
A review by Tory Parker
Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Tory Parker. All rights reserved.
It’s finally here—that long-awaited, high-anticipated dual production of the much-beloved (and sometimes equally-detested) Jesus Christ Superstar is finally here. “Did you hear Gilda Wabbit is playing Jesus?” “Oh wow! Oh, she’ll be amazing.” “Yeah, I think it’s going to be really good.”
Reader, I have had the above conversation an unholy amount of times over the past 5 months. Now, finally, FINALLY, I have seen it. And reader—get ready to kneel like it’s 8 am on Sunday and you’re taking the Eucharist, because this production is going to bring you to your knees.
For the sake of this review and my own sanity, we’re going to largely gloss over the theology of Jesus Christ Superstar and we’re going to remind ourselves that neither Tim Rice or ALW are trained theologians; that they are two EGOT winners, one of whom is most famously associated with Disney’s Aladdin and one of whom should be in prison for CATS. This is a musical based on a concept album based on a story—one of the most famous stories in the world—and that’s all it needs to be.
Drag Daddy and Chicken Coop’s conceptualization of JCS takes the story of Jesus of Nazareth out of the ancient desert and drops him into a “not-too-distant future.” This fascinating set from Patrick Jump has us inside of a crumbling church. The warm wood and white brick with the colorful stained glass make it familiar—it could be the church in the suburbs you grew up in, built between 1955 and 1970, right before this musical came out. Everything and everyone on stage is a little beat up, with stomping boots, fishnets, and even some sleeveless blazers. They’ve all been through a lot, and we can relate. I especially enjoyed the inclusion of neo-classical columns; they juxtaposed nicely with the threat of Roman retaliation under which the disciples and Jesus operate. Antithetical, like an American flag at the foot of a cross.
From top to bottom, this cast is knock-down, drag-out incredible.
Movement was so critical to this production, and the dance ensemble (Celeste Vonderschmitt, Leigh Nieves, Veronica Riggs, and Kimberly Roeten) were masterful in their storytelling. Operas, even rock ones, can err on the side of being a 2 hour park and bark, but the dance ensemble, and the movement from the entire cast, kept the pulse moving and never missed a beat.
But this show is called a rock “opera” for a reason. The vocals in JCS are not for the faint of heart, and from the titular Christ to the 12th disciple, it is a challenge. But you wouldn’t know just how hard this score is by seeing this production, because the vocalists on stage make it look and sound so easy. From Tony Smith’s rich earthquake of a bass note as Caiaphus to Alex Roby’s showstopping baritone belt as Simon to Erica Goodman’s smooth, silky purr of an alto as Peter to William Nickles’ soaring, sparkling falsetto as Mary Magdalene, this cast HAS the vocals, babe.
I want to give a shout out to Louisville stage newcomer Lyndsey Jayne Pennington, who not only delivered an incredible vocal as Pilate, but whose manic, pleading, powerful portrayal was razor sharp and fascinating to watch. I hope she sticks around for a long time.
If all of that hasn’t yet convinced you, then let this do it: whether or not you believe in God, I think it must be the act of some higher power that we have Myranda Thomas and Gilda Wabbit as Judas and Jesus. Their performances are other-level, and it is such a gift that we have them here, in our community, and that you have the chance to experience it.
Thomas’ Judas comes with the pain built in. He is confused, he feels lost, and before he can commit the act for which he is now most famous, he is the one who first feels betrayed. We watch as Judas tries to follow, tries to reason with the Son of God, whom he loves, tries to justify a terrible act to himself, and eventually cries out for an explanation. Thomas full-body weeps on stage, screaming for a modicum of understanding, for justification for this suffering—and there has never been anything so Biblical, so ancient.
In Jesus Christ Superstar, we meet the titular character at nearly the end of his journey on earth. We know, from Judas, that his teachings have been revolutionary, that they’ve bolstered support from people across the land, while at the same time garnering dangerous attention from the Pharisees and the Romans. This ambiguity leaves lots of room for contemporary interpreters like Lewis and Cooper to hold up a mirror, so that we can see our own Pharisees, in their red blazers and “Make Israel Great Again” hats, and our own disciples of Christ, waving rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter signs. It is then especially powerful to have our Messiah played by a Drag artist, because who has been on the front lines for liberation, who has bravely and fabulously denied the imprisonment of binaries, who has vocally stood in front of crowds and preached a message of joy and love more than our Drag artists and those who live outside the gender binary? And so, of course, in this wave of conservative vitriol and hate-laced fear blazing across our country, who are the first to be sacrificed to the angry mob? Who have we been more willing to crucify?
In the end, the intricacies of what you believe as far as the Divine don’t really matter when you’re in the audience of this show—like I mentioned above, we’re not here for a peer-reviewed theological article on the nature of the Messiah. The show doesn’t even strictly let itself get mixed up in the tangles of bodily resurrection. The spirit of Judas returns for the show-stopping “Superstar,” and in a beautiful choice in this production, embraces Jesus, whispering love, seemingly to assure him that all this teaching, saving, and suffering was not for nothing, and that no matter his fate, he will not be alone.
So like I said, it doesn’t really matter what YOU believe. But as an ordained Deacon in the Baptist church and elder in the Presbyterian church, as the daughter of a minister, a weekly bible-study attendee, and a life-long church-goer, it is my informed opinion that a room full of wonderful, brilliant people of all different genders, races, sexualities, abilities, income levels, and ages, singing and dancing in all their queer, fishnetted glory, worshiping at the gentle hand of a Drag Queen—surely that is the kingdom of God.
Featuring Gilda Wabbit, Mryanda Thomas, William Nickles, Lyndsey Jayne Pennington, Erica Goodman, Tony Smith, Natalie Minton, Kate Holland Ballowe, Daniel Riddlesmith, Robbie Smith, Alex Roby, Jason Cooper, Leigh Nieves, Veronica Riggs, Kimberly Roeten, Celeste Vanderschmitt, Stephanie Ballage, Piranha Del Ray, Kole Michaels, Peighton Radlen, Gerry Robertson, Sarah Tonini, Taylor Torsky, Tony Lewis
Jesus Christ Superstar
August 3 – 6, 10 – 13, 2023
Tory Parker, originally from West Virginia, is now a proud Kentuckian as well. In Louisville, she’s worked and/or performed with Actors Theatre of Louisville, Claddagh Theatre Company, the Chamber Theatre, Bellarmine University, Wayward Actors Company, Derby City Playwrights, Company OutCast, Highview Arts Center, and director Emily Grimany. She is a co-founding artist of the queer theatre collaborative, three witches shakespeare. As a playwright, her original works appeared in the National Women’s Theatre Festival in their 2020 and 2021 Fringe Festivals