Friday, July 23, 2004

Matthew Pannaz plays Jesus Christ in the Diamond Head Theater production of "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Divine performances
bless ‘Superstar’

There's a difference in musical theater between simply singing lyrics and conveying emotion. When Alison L.B. Maldonado (Mary Magdalene) casts a puzzled glance at Matthew Pennaz (Jesus Christ) while she's singing "I Don't Know How to Love Him," or when Laurence Paxton (Pontius Pilate) pleads with Pennaz to give him a reason to spare him the agonies of crucifixion, it's clear that Diamond Head Theatre's latest revival of "Jesus Christ Superstar" is blessed with excellent vocalists and exceptional actors.

"Jesus Christ Superstar": Presented by Diamond Head Theatre at 520 Makapuu Ave., repeating 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 1; plus 8 p.m. Aug. 7 and 4 p.m. Aug. 8.

Tickets: $12 to $42 (discounts available for students, active duty military, and people 62 and older). Call 733-0274.

Director/choreographer Andrew Sakaguchi presents the familiar rock-opera account of Christ's last seven days in stark and powerful form. A tangle of intersecting ramps and stairs represent Jerusalem and its environs. Karen G. Wolfe (costume design) and Kathleen Kamakaiwi (makeup and hair design) put most of the cast in non-nondescript modern attire, a gambit that results in more dramatic and visual impact.

Paxton wears a lush purple robe, Roman-style body armor and sandals. Dennis Proulx (Caiaphas) and his fellow Pharisees wear stiff black priestly robes with dark maroon accents. Randl Ask (Herod) steals the show doing "Herod's Song" while tricked out in a Liberace-style white satin suit, sequins, oversized sunglasses and a flowing green feather boa.

Ask kills with his powerful comic portrayal of the dissolute Jewish monarch who challenges Jesus to "Prove to me that you're no fool/Walk across my swimming pool" while women in 18th century underwear cavort around him. Ask also displays impressive skills as a dancer by the time his glorious romp is over.

Paxton is perfect as Pilate, Roman governor of the ever-rebellious province of Judea, who attempts to steer a middle course between political expediency, his personal sense of right and wrong, and a warning conveyed to him in a dream that no harm must come to Jesus. Paxton's single number in Act I is the preview of an outstanding dramatic performance in two pivotal Act II numbers.

Proulx, singing with power and assurance at the depths of his lower register, exudes malevolence as Caiaphas, and dominates the stage visually whether he and his fellow Pharisees are dealing with Jesus ("Hosanna"), Judas ("Damned For All Time/"Blood Money" and "Judas, Death"), or keeping council among themselves ("This Jesus Must Die"). The fact that Proulx is physically larger than Pennaz or John Bryan (Judas Iscariot), even without robes adding to his stature, adds to the impact of his performance.

Sakaguchi makes interesting choices in stage direction. He brings the action out into the audience for "Hosanna" while the Pharisees watch menacingly from the highest points of M.J. Matsushita's set. The director also stages the departure of Maldonado and Pennaz after "I Don't Know How to Love Him" to include a hint of physical affection.

Pennaz demonstrates power and passion as a leading man throughout. He is especially effective driving the moneychangers and other "thieves" from the temple ("The Temple") and in his glorious rendition of "Gethsemane."

Bryan was more tentative than he should have been in his first big number, "Heaven on Their Minds," but was up to speed delivering the crucial blend of rage and horror needed for "Damned For All Time/"Blood Money" and "Judas, Death" -- numbers expressing Judas' realization that he was betrayed by God and the Pharisees.

It has been more than 30 years since "Jesus Christ Superstar" debuted as a "concept album" and went on to become as controversial in the early 1970s as Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" this year. "JCS" has aged well over time, and this production of it should not be missed.

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