Among the very first Tim Rice lyrics sung by Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” are: “My mind is clearer now,” followed by “If you strip away the myth from the man you will see where we all soon will be.”
Clear-minded co-directors Eliza Leoni and Shane Ray have done exactly that — stripped away the myths of gender, setting and production history — in their invigorating new vision for Ray of Light Theatre.
Christ and company ascending in a gender-fluid, #metoo, Trump-obsessed, racially-conflicted, media-fed 2018 might well look like the group onstage at the Victoria Theatre. Female, diverse, tech and media savvy, they lead a fight for justice and splinter in conflicts around the agenda and who controls it.
The daily news and the way the motifs are engaged is artful and thoughtful. The mono-gendered casting feels organic, not gimmicky, and only occasionally bumps up against the dissonance of seemingly mismatched pronouns.
The production is sonically outstanding thanks to the design and engineering by Theodore J.H. Hulsker and Anton Hedman, who showcase the exceptional work of music director Ben Prince. “Superstar” has always been a rangy piece, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber for bass to countertenor talents. Forgiving a few less-than-seamless key changes in the solos, Prince really has done a masterful job of transferring the score to female voices.
Designer Kuo-Hao Lo appeases screen-junkies by scattering large monitors around his spare, industrial set, letting Erik Scanlon and Patrick Nims curate a cleverly addictive feed. Choreographer Alex Rodriguez provides sharp, urgent, vigorous steps that looks good in Maggie Whitaker’s battle-chic apostle gear.
Embracing it all, Christian Mejia paints with saturated shades of searing light that becomes its own character — guiding, focusing and influencing.
The impressive array of technical artistry supports an equally impressive cast.
The triangle of Jesus (Janelle LaSalle), Judas (Jocelyn Pickett) and Mary Magdalene (Maita Ponce) remains compelling, with Ponce standing out in a clear-voice reading of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and Pickett passionately juggling the conflicts between message and messenger.
On the other side of the line, the high priests invoke a “Real Housewives of Jerusalem” vibe — stylish and entitled — with Heather Orth and Christen Sottolano as a perfectly paired and vocally impressive Caiaphas and Annas. Courtney Merrell brings a surprising tenderness to Pilate before breaking out the lash, and Hayley Lovgren goes drag queen chat show over-the-top as Herod.
Blood, sweat and musicals is the Ray of Light motto. That mindset, plus some ingenuity and a passion for the Christ, make this almost 50-year-old musical feel refreshed, vital and very now.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Presented by Ray of Light Theatre
Where: Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; closes June 9
Tickets: $15 to $40
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