At Haddonfield, a SUPERSTAR Production

by Jessica Martin

Haddonfield Plays and Players took on a huge challenge in producing JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. This Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock opera presents a challenge to any dramatic or musical group, and Haddonfield has risen to it.

Pat Defusco, Scott Reynolds and Dana Kares are one of the alternately starring casts in Haddonfield Plays and Players' JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, running in Haddonfield NJ through November 5. (Photo credit: David Gold)

The work was originally conceived as a record album before its staging on Broadway in 1971. It was seen by some critics as disappointing, yet it has endured for 40 years. It has been highly popular with professional and nonprofessional troupes, even before its legal release, and a Broadway revival is planned for 2012.

The controversial nature of the show is well known, though it has lessened over the years. Just as Mary Magdalene sings “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” you may silently sing “I Don’t Know How to Take This.” Religious scholars and devout traditional Christians would be best advised to take it for what it is, a fictionalized account of the last five days of Jesus’ life on earth. Despite the title (which is probably meant to be ironic), the focus is on Judas Iscariot and the possible reasons for his betrayal of a man whom he once idolized.

As Jesus and his followers prepare to go to Jerusalem on what will later be called Palm Sunday, Judas is concerned that the followers see Jesus as a king and will eventually want him to lead them in a revolt against their Roman rulers. He criticizes Jesus for his apparent acceptance of his followers’ views and for his association with Mary Magdalene, a prostitute. On Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the high priest Caiaphas (Tom Skoufalos) and other members of the Sanhedrin also fear that he will start a rebellion and therefore must be destroyed. The drama moves on to an inevitable conclusion, although the full story is not told. Like the passion plays of old, it ends with the crucifixion.

The humanity of both Jesus and Judas is movingly depicted. Judas is fiery; Jesus is calm and almost passive except in the scene where he drives the merchants and moneychangers out of the temple. Mary Magdalene is the eternal comforter, always reassuring Jesus that “Everything’s Alright”. These demanding roles are played by two sets of actors at alternating performances. On the first Friday night, Judas was portrayed by Pat DeFusco, Jesus by Scott Reynolds and Mary by Dana Kares. DeFusco has an extremely powerful voice that fills the entire theatre with Judas’ anger and frustration. Reynolds has a remarkable vocal range that expresses the many emotions of Jesus. Kares’ voice is lovely and strong. And the acting of all three is superb.

There are other fine performances too numerous to mention, but two should be singled out. Justin Henry is striking as Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. He has been warned in a dream that he will be held responsible for Jesus’ death, and he is anxious to avoid this. He declares that Jesus is not under his jurisdiction but that of Herod, King of Galilee, because Jesus is Galilean. Glen Funkhouser gives a strong performance as Herod, who tries to taunt Jesus into revealing his divinity in a jarringly amusing song-and-dance number, asking him to perform miracles (“Prove to me that you’re no fool; walk across my swimming pool”). Jesus does not respond, so Herod sends him back to Pilate. The latter pleads with the crowd to spare Jesus the death penalty, but they continue to scream, “Crucify him!” When a whipping with 39 lashes does not satisfy the mob, Pilate reluctantly orders the crucifixion and washes his hands of responsibility for it.

The sets and lighting are a perfect backdrop for the action, and the costumes of the ensemble are colorful, not exactly biblical but suggesting the hippie era, when the show was first staged. The singing, dancing and orchestral accompaniment are excellent as they aid in retelling the tragic but engrossing story.

A practical anticlimax: If you go, go early because of the parking situation. There is plenty of room, but the large cast takes up much of the rear of the lot. They graciously allow audience members to park behind them, but this leads to considerable delay in getting out after the show.

Book and Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Ed Doyle, musical direction by Deborah Bergen
October 13-30, November 4, 5, 2011
Haddonfield Plays and Players
957 E. Atlantic Avenue
Haddonfield, NJ 08033
(856) 429-8139

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