Scott Miller, artistic director of St. Louis' New Line Theatre, promised something new and different for his production of Jesus Christ Superstar, and he certainly came through, providing a climax that was shocking both in terms of the action itself and in terms of what impact it brought to the production as a whole.
Although the musical and its title character have always had political overtones, Miller makes it more so by placing fedoras as well as "press" cards on the chorus, giving them a more contemporary attitude. Indeed, Miller has set the musical in a contemporary timeframe with the actors in modern street garb -- think of a graduate school production of Hair.
Khnemu Menu-Ra and John Sparger opened the production as Jesus and Judas, respectively; they are alternating in the roles from week to week. At the performance I attended, Menu-Ra underplayed Jesus in fine style, and while Sparger had some difficulty in his upper register as Judas, his acting was solid.
Other impressive voices came from Charles Glenn as a king-sized Herod, with a deeply sarcastic sneer in his voice as he stopped the show with "King Herod's Song," and Kevin Collier as Caiaphas, whose rumbling bass has great power. The tall, burly Collier was a splendid contrast, physically and vocally, with the slight, slender Aaron Allen as Annas. Their duets were stylish and effective. Kimi Short was an effective Mary, gaining strength and focus in Act II, especially in her duet with Adam Leong as Peter, "Could We Start Again, Please?"
Miller's modernization concept gives the production a thought-provoking aura. The production also avoids the tendency of the final scenes to feel interminable.
Todd Schaefer has designed a simple but workable set: a bare, rectangular stage with a staircase at one end, the audience on three sides. Florian Staab designed the lights and sound, and made each a strong, complementary part of the action.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs June 1-24 at the Art Loft Theatre, 1529 Washington. Tickets: (314) 534-1111. Website: www.geocities.com/newlinetheatre.