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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, July 22, 2004

Opera classic rocks on at Diamond Head

By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Special to The Advertiser

There's so much dramatic spirit pulsing through Diamond Head Theatre's "Jesus Christ Superstar" that we're tempted to proselytize complete strangers at intermission about how good this production is.

Starring in "Jesus Christ Superstar" are, from left, John Bryan as Judas Iscariot, Matthew Pennaz as Jesus Christ, and Alison Maldonado as Mary Magdalene.

Brad Goda

Anyone doubting that the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice 1970s rock opera could play well after 30 years can relax.

Depending on your musical heritage, the music may be nostalgic or dated, but the show plays with fresh insight. Perhaps the Mel Gibson movie helped to reopen the subject.

Without any spoken dialogue, the music is the dominant element, but it works beautifully to propel the dramatic action and not to dominate it.

In addition to the title song, "Everything's Alright" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him" have become part of our musical history. Each musical number blends into the next and works so neatly to advance the action that breaks for applause seem unnecessary and intrusive.

Musical director Melina Lillios gets good rock volume from a smallish orchestra and excellent vocal results from the cast principals and chorus.

Essentially a dark drama (you know the plot line) punctuated with several upbeat moments and one exaggerated satiric number, the best way to enjoy the performance is to forget you're in a theater and become absorbed in the story.

Andrew Sakaguchi's stage direction and choreography make that easy to do.

Jesus Christ Superstar

• 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 1; extended for two shows — 8 p.m. Aug. 7 and 4 p.m. Aug. 8

• Diamond Head Theatre

• $12-$42

• 733-0274

Sakaguchi's interpretation is blessed with deep insight into the central characters and excellent casting that allows the actors to deliver clear and deeply layered performances — all done in song and pantomime.

Central to the success is Matthew Pennaz as Jesus. It helps that he has the vocal range to hit the falsetto high notes and emotional depth to realize character's roller-coaster mood swings. It also helps in adding the necessary distance to the character that Pennaz is relatively unknown to local audiences, having only previously appeared as an excellent Lancelot in ACT's "Camelot" and in earlier supporting roles at DHT.

In a show where the dominant theme repeatedly questions the existence of individual choice in a context of predestination, Jesus' character emerges as the super-realist.

Always aware of his destiny, the character is blissfully unconcerned and fully in the moment when buoyed up by his followers.

Yet his human struggle takes over until he gives in to divine will.

Interestingly, it's Judas who opens the show, with John Bryant creating the character as a pragmatic realist, sounding early warnings that Jesus has gone too far and will endanger his followers. Alison Maldonado completes the picture as Mary Magdalene, the archetypical comfort woman, aware of others' pain and wanting only to relieve it.

Sakaguchi and cast create wonderful tension in this three-character triangle as Judas and Mary Magdalene work their opposing influences on Jesus.

Adding to their already excellent characterizations, the fact that Judas and Mary are both played by African Americans injects an additional dynamic — suggesting Judas may resent Mary's association with Jesus on a more personal level.

It's no accident that the scene in which Judas discovers Jesus and Mary embracing is immediately followed by Judas selling out his master to the high priests.

Dennis Proulx plays an imposing Caiaphas, capitalizing on bass notes that most roles don't offer. Laurence Paxton has two excellent scenes as Pontius Pilate, turning philosophical conflict into personal torture. Jay Flores and Jimi Wheeler are good in the smaller roles of Simon and Peter.

Choreography gives necessary relief to the somber story line as Sakaguchi brings the chorus into the audience to sing "Hosanna" — one of the few times when that device feels dramatically appropriate instead of simply a gimmick.

Ultimately, this is a somber, serious, and introspective musical — beautifully realized and sensitively rendered.

See it if you can.