Tag Archives: Ted Neely

Resurrecting a rock opera

The current revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a sort of fourth coming for me. I’ve seen three previous productions of the classic rock opera featuring music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice — starting as a tween who first fell in love with the concept album, then saw a touring production of the show many years later in California.

For a time, I lived and died by the record that felt like my generation’s version of Green Day’s “American Idiot.” Listening to the double album, with its mottled dirt-colored cover and gold logo depicting a pair of angels, felt like an act of supreme rebellion. I remember opening the folded album cover atop my bed, pouring over the matching booklet and kneeling nearly prayer-like on the floor while singing along to songs like “What’s the Buzz?” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”

My daughter Lizabeth, who performs this weekend in the Pace Performing Arts production of “Our Lady of 121st Street” at the Lion Theatre on NYC’s famed 42nd Street, has joined me for two national touring productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar” performed at ASU Gammage in Tempe.

She admits to being too young to truly understand “Jesus Christ Superstar” the first time around, but I remember thinking at the time that I wanted her to experience the music that’d meant so much to me during a similar age and stage. Some things — like Springsteen concerts and favorite Broadway musicals — are important to share with our children along the journey.

During my last trip to NYC, we saw a preview of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” directed by Des McAnuff (think “Jersey Boys“) — which has since officially opened at the Neil Simon Theatre. Lizabeth shared after the show that it was the first time she really understood the full measure of the story, based loosely on the last seven days of Jesus’ life.

Though some see blasphemy in the musical’s broad strokes, it’s clearly educating a whole new generation about geopolitical and religious issues of Jesus’ day. For kids not raised with Bible in hand, it’s as close as they may ever come to considering Jesus’ life and times — to witnessing a work within the “passion play” tradition.

Those who’ve suggested the current revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a tad over the top may have preferred tamer takes featuring Ted Neely as Jesus — but we’re not among them. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival production –performed at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego before heading to Broadway — is bolder by far, and much better for it. I loved “The Book of Mormon,” but can’t say that I adore “Jesus Christ Superstar” any less. God has been good to Broadway of late.

I spent much of “Jesus Christ Superstar” fighting the urge to get up and dance. Nobody wants their mom to have the musical theater equivalent of a “come to Jesus” moment in public, so I settled for a swift bit of toe-tapping and a silent sing-along in my head. This resurrection of “Superstar” is fresh, fabulous and fun. No apologies needed.

The “Jesus Christ Superstar” cast includes Paul Nolan (Jesus), Josh Young (Judas), Chilina Kennedy (Mary Magdalene), Tom Hewitt (Pontius Pilate) and Bruce Dow (King Herod). Also Marcus Nance (Caiaphas) and Aaron Walpole (Annas). Nick Cartell (Jonah/Swing) grew up in Arizona, where he performed with Valley Youth Theatre, Phoenix Theatre and more. Liz tells me he’s already rocked the role of Judas in understudy mode.

The creative team includes Andrew Lloyd Webber (composer), Tim Rice (lyricist), Des McAnuff (director), Lisa Shriver (choreographer), Rick Fox (music director), Robert Brill (set design), Paul Tazewell (costume design) and Howell Binkley (lighting design). Also Steve Canyon Kennedy (sound design), Sean Nieuwenhuis (video design), Daniel Levinson (fight director), Simon Fox (stunt coordinator) and John Miller (music coordinator).

It’s about time we had a “Superstar” laced with sensitivity and sass. Think sets featuring tall metal bleachers and a giant ticker counting down Jesus’ final days. Costumes in lush fabrics saturated with rich color or earthy materials muted with feminizing tones. Choreography with tent-revival fervor. And layers of glorious orchestration with a hint of folk fare. All bring modern scale to an ancient tale — making “Jesus Christ Superstar” a resurrection well worth the wait.

— Lynn

Coming up: “Rock of Ages” on Valley stages

Photos courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

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An ode to “Frog & Toad”

I find myself in a bit of a bind. Recently I attended a preview performance of Childsplay’s production of “A Year With Frog and Toad” — featuring a strong ensemble of Childsplay artists including Dwayne Hartford (“Toad”) and D. Scott Withers (“Frog”), pictured above during the show’s final dress rehearsal.

I’ve since developed a nearly uncontrollable urge to tell every parent I see that they need to hop right over to the Tempe Center for the Arts.

The show runs Sept 18 to Oct 16 — Saturdays and Sundays at both 1pm and 4pm — and is recommended for ages four and up. It’s directed by David Saar, Childsplay’s founder and artistic director, whose work has earned both national and international acclaim.

Sing along at home to the "Frog and Toad" Broadway cast recording

I realize, of course, that I can’t simply run through the streets shouting an ode to “Frog and Toad.” So I’m toying with more subtle means of making my point.

Bumper stickers? Buttons? A bullhorn, perhaps? A “Frog and Toad” ballad. A duo of “Frog and Toad” busts. A billboard, perhaps?

But why so smitten?

Childsplay was a sort of first love for me — one of my earliest experiences as a parent with truly exceptional performance art for children and families.

Experiencing their performance of Steven Dietz’s “Still Life With Iris” at the Herberger Theater Center many years ago was akin to holding a newborn baby in all its splendor. Such joy. Such wonder.

I felt that way again many years later when Lizabeth and I went to see David Saar’s “The Yellow Boat,” a play inspired by the life and artistry of his son Benjamin, who was born with hemophilia and died in 1987 of AIDS-related complications following a blood transfusion.

Through the years, I’ve been impressed by a number of Childsplay productions. Their work is timely without being trendy, profound without being preachy.

The original "Frog and Toad" of Lobel's classic stories

So it is with “A Year With Frog and Toad” — based on a series of books written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel.

This Childsplay production features not only Withers and Hartford, but also Yolanda London, Molly Lajoie, Katie McFadzen and Tony Castellanos (who recently toured with “Jesus Christ Superstar” featuring Ted Neely).

There are lessons to be learned about friendship and patience. It’s full of wisdom, but also whimsy. The crowd I saw it with — ages preschool to parent — giggled and squealed with delight throughout the performance.

The music (by Robert Beale, who majored in jazz studies at ASU) is lively and diverse — from bluegrass to jazz. The scenic design (by Edie Whitsett) is beautiful — with bright, popping colors and seamless execution when the time comes to roll, raise, lower or slide. Spring flowers pop up from the ground. Gentle snowflakes fall down from the sky.

“Frog” and “Toad” are best friends who seem to do just about everything together. They swim, sip tea, ride sleds, fly kites, bake cookies (getting a bit carried away in the quality control department). Other critters populate their playtime (perhaps real, perhaps a dream) — including a snail who slowly manages to find a new calling in life.

Both the acting and singing in Childsplay’s “A Year With Frog and Toad” are exceptional, rivaling the quality of many a touring Broadway show I’ve seen through the years. Ditto for the costumes (designed by Karen Ann Ledger) — once again worthy of their own exhibition.

Childsplay’s current production of “A Year With Frog and Toad” also features music direction by Alan Ruch (who wrote words and music for “The Yellow Boat”), choreography by Michael Barnard (now in his 12th season as producing artistic director for Phoenix Theatre) and lighting design by Rick Paulsen (who recently lit Childsplay’s production of “The BFG”).

Sound design is by Christopher Neumeyer, projection design is by Anthony Runfola (who rocks it by adding a techo-friendly touch that’ll appeal to screen-savvy kids) and stage management is by Samantha Reis.

Poster for the Broadway production of "A Year With Frog and Toad"

“A Year With Frog and Toad” enjoyed a brief run on Broadway during 2003, garnering a Tony nomination for “Best Musical” as well as nominations for brothers Robert Reale (music) and Willie Reale (book and lyrics).

You know, maybe I’m on to something there with the whole Broadway/NYC thing. Anybody know how I can get my ode to Childsplay’s “Frog and Toad” on the giant screen in NYC’s Times Square?

–Lynn

Note: Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe will feature a teaching artist from Childsplay reading from Lobel’s “Frog and Toad” series at their “Explore-a-Story” family event on Sept 25 at 10am. The event is free and includes dramatic play that’ll guide children through “some of Frog and Toad’s best adventures.” Children and teens can enjoy training with the talented artists of Childsplay through various workshops and camps — click here to learn more.

Coming up: Musings on theater award season in Arizona, Celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month