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PHOTO BY KEN EK Kennedy Kanagawa (Judas) and ensemble, PHOTO BY KEN EK Kennedy Kanagawa (Judas) and ensemble, "Jesus Christ Superstar," through July 28, Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre

The passion of 'Jesus Christ Superstar'

Wednesday, July 17, 2013 by PAUL WILLISTEIN pwillistein@tnonline.com in Focus

You don't need to travel to Oberammergau, Bavaria, Germany, to experience a passion play. There's one right here in the Lehigh Valley.

The Muhlenberg College Music Theatre (MSMT) "Jesus Christ Superstar," through July 28, Empie Theater, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown, is a thoughtful, often startling, entertaining passion play.

The first hit musical by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Tim Rice, which debuted in 1971, is a revisionist retelling of the Bible's New Testament accounts of Jesus.

Now, if you're going to have a very good "good," you had better have a very bad "bad."

With Jesus (Dan Cary) as the "Good Guy," Judas (Kennedy Kanagawa) is the obvious "Bad Guy."

However, "Superstar," in structure, storyline, song and especially the MSMT production, is not interested in such black and white definitions.

Therefore, Jesus is depicted as more doubtful and even a bit peevish than in traditional Biblical portrayals, and Judas is depicted as a professorial philosopher-in-residence.

Cary certainly looks the part and has an astounding voice, scaling the octaves like Journey lead singer Steve Perry, including on the songs "What's the Buzz" and "The Temple." Cary is also effectively sensitive in the songs "Gethsemane" and "The Crucifixion."

Kanagawa may not look the part of the grizzly Judas of yore, but the choice works. His Judas represents the charm of evil, replete with silver-tongue vocals on "Heaven on Their Minds" and "Damned for All Time."

There are many remarkable voices in the MSMT "Superstar," among them: Ed Bara (Caiaphas), astounding throughout ("This Jesus Must Die"); Joshua Neth (Pontius Pilate), very formidable ("Pilate's Dream"); Jessie MacBeth (Mary Magdalene), exquisite ("I Don't Know How to Love Him"); Josh Shapiro (Annas); Justin Galletto (Simon), and Jakeim Hart (Peter).

There's a painterly sensibility to the MSMT "Superstar." Scenes unfold like tableaus. Influences of Rembrandt, Rubens, Brueghel and Dali can be gleaned from the set design, lighting and staging.

The stage design by Tim Averill is stark, with a backdrop depicting the sun, looking like a stain in the sky; a long, center-stage multi-functional piece, representing huge gray-brown blocks; platforms and staircases that are moved into place, and a large Roman medalion and red curtain drops.

The lighting design by John McKernon emphasizes the storyline's darker aspects, an exception being the King Herod scene, which is lit like "Hullabaloo," a 1966-'66 pop-rock music variety show.

The chiaroscuro lighting for the crucifixion scene is awe-inspiring, the stillness held contemplatively. It is the show's dramatic lynchpin and may bring a tear to believing Christians' eyes.

Charles O. Anderson's percussive choreography is ever-present. This "Superstar" is nearly non-stop movement. Anderson incorporates ritualistic dance, including liturgical dance, hip-hop, break-dancing, stepping (step-dancing), club (disco and rock), and African tribal forms.

The direction by James Peck is fluid and often cinematic. There's a rhythm and flow to the scenes, a seamless continuum in the briskly-paced show, with an approximate 45-min. first act and 50-min. second act.

The costume design by Annie Simon is inventive and varied. When the ensemble is cloaked and scurrying about with crab-like aggressive movements, the scene looks like the Ewoks (from "Star Wars") meets zombies ("The Night of the Living Dead").

For the penultimate "Superstar" title song number Judas (Kanagawa) is attired in a winged-collar, bell-bottom Elvis of the Latter-Day Rock Star outfit, backed by eye-popping dance moves by the Soul Girls (Kim Dodson, Brandi Porter and Stefanie Goldberg).

Dodson, Porter, Goldberg and the ensemble, outfitted in Simon's juicy attire that includes pink bathing caps, zebra-print vests, also knock themselves out for "King Herod's Song," an extravaganza and the show's highlight in hilarity led by an extravagant turn by Bill Mutimer, who is over-the-top perfect.

Music Director Ken Butler achieves a big sound with the five-piece rock ensemble, conducted by Vince Di Mura.