by Lynn on November 27, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Five Points Theatre, Barrie, Ont. Produced by Talk is Free Theatre. Plays until Dec. 2, 2023.

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Lyrics by Tim Rice

Directed by Saccha Dennis

Music director, Jeremiah Sparks

Choreographer, Michael Challenger

Sets and props by Adriana Bogaard

Costumes by Des’ree Grey

Lighting by Isabella Cesari

Cast: Astrid Atherly

Jahlen Barnes

Kyle Brown

Sierra Holder

Michael-Lamont Lytle

Andrew Prashad

Danilo Reyes

Shakura S’aida

Suchiththa Wickremesooria

Ocean Williams

A well-intentioned interpretation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice classic, that doesn’t quite work, but one has to be impressed with the effort to realize the idea and the strong cast.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1970 rock opera concept album (and 1971 Broadway hit) follows Jesus Christ and his followers as they work for good. Jesus is loved by Mary. But Judas feels that Jesus is getting above himself, believing what is being said about him and it will end badly. Jesus and his followers are considered dangerous by Caiaphas and his henchmen and plot to bring Jesus down. Jesus foresees his downfall. He knows Judas will betray him and Peter will deny him.

Director Saccha Dennis has reimagined the musical to reflect what happened Dec. 4, 1969 to Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Black Panther Party, when he was killed in Chicago by the FBI, after he was betrayed by informant, William O’Neal.  The Black Panther Party was formed to fight for African American equality and establish revolutionary socialism through community-based programs and challenge the police and politicians. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, felt that Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party was a dangerous organization and Hoover was going to stop them. The result was that based on informant William O’Neal’s information, Fred Hampton died in a hail of bullets when the FBI raided;; Hampton’s apartment in a pre-dawn raid.

Director Saccha Dennis has placed her production in the late 1960s. In Adriana Bogaard’s design there are posters on the walls: some referencing The Black Panthers, one saying “Free Huey” (Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers was in jail for manslaughter. The sentence was eventually reversed), one poster saying “In Memoriam: Jonathan Jackson” (which seems wrong for the time because if this was the Black Panther Jonathan Jackson, he died a year after Fred Hampton died in 1969). There is an over-head projector at the back. There is a desk and chair over here, another chair over there, a rug, a moveable door-well and a couch stage right.  

At the top of the show, director Saccha Dennis has characters enter and a man dressed in black ‘leather’ draws a large square in chalk on the floor. This is Judas (a wonderfully dramatic Jahlen Barnes).  The characters then move the scattered furniture into the square forming the Black Panther office. This is a clever way of setting the stage and the place.

The Last Supper is staged with Jesus sitting on the couch with his disciples around him, with boxes of take-out on a table in front of them. Loved the efficiency and ‘community’ of that scene.  

When Jesus is crucified, a cross is drawn on the floor in chalk and he positions himself on the cross on the floor and plays the scene that way. Saccha Dennis nicely solves the problem of the crucifixion by having Jesus fit on the cross on the floor.  

Michael Challenger’s choreography is lively and buoyant. The cast lead by a pensive Kyle Brown as Jesus and Jahlen Barnes as Judas are some of the most talented singer/actors around. The problem is that you could not hear them, almost at all. The piano (upstage right, Jeremiah Sparks doing yeoman’s work playing) is amplified and none of the singers are microphoned. Not good. What an odd decision—not to microphone the singers. I was not alone in not hearing the singers—and I was in the third row. (eye-brows knitting here).

 I appreciate Saccha Dennis wanting to use 1969 technology (the over-head projector) but one could not read whatever is projected on the back wall. The image is fuzzy and unfocused. Is that an image of the 10 points of the Black Panther Party on the back wall, that a character points out? One can’t see it clearly. At the end of the show photos of people are projected from the over-head projector onto the back wall, but I could not make out their names—except if I peered hard, I could see that the last name is Fred Hampton. Who are the others? Are they members of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party? There has to be context for the audience who might not be familiar with a political group that lasted from 1966-1982 in the United States, and in particular, the ones involved in the Chicago branch.

I appreciate Saccha Dennis’ vision and industry in realizing her interpretation but too often scenes are unfocused there is so much going on. Furniture, the rug, that door-well seemed in constant movement that it detracted from the singing going on in front of it.

When Judas enters for is first song there is a lot of activity of characters moving around the space to the point I could not find Jesus in all that movement. It’s tempting to be clever with staging. Simple I think is better in focusing the action and our attention.

Mary’s (a powerful Ocean Williams) famous solo “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”, seems lost when she begins to sing it upstage looking at the side for some reason,  and now downstage center, nailing the audience’s attention.

While I don’t think this production of Jesus Christ Superstar quite works, I do look forward to seeing other productions directed by Saccha Dennis.

Talk Is Free Theatre presents:

Plays until Dec. 2.

Running Time: 2 hours (1 intermission)

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