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All-female cast rocks in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ in SF

Ray of Light Theatre’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at San Francisco’s Victoria Theatre has a built-in hook — an all-women cast.
The show’s Twitter hashtag is #shesus, and its logo is a pink Venus symbol zoomed in on the cross at the bottom. That would be reason enough to check it out as a curious novelty, but the real reason to see the show is that it’s a dynamic production that really revitalizes the 1970 rock opera.
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Even many folks who normally scoff at Andrew Lloyd Webber have a soft spot for “JCS,” the flashy and refreshingly cynical take on the ministry, persecution and death of Jesus Christ with music by Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. At the moment the musical is enjoying a resurgence in the popular consciousness due to a well-received live television special last month. Even so, the funky rock opera can sometimes feel dated, with its hippie apostles trying not to harsh Jesus’ mellow as Judas insists on bumming him out.
Updating the milieu to the present, the Ray of Light production directed by Eliza Leoni and Shane Ray does a great job of making the piece feel vital and relevant. The apostles aren’t just feel-good hangers-on but committed activists dressed in black and ready for direct action. Erik Scanlon’s superb video design accentuates the action newscasts (from station “WWJD”), YouTube and surveillance video and a flurry of Tweets (during the song “What’s the Buzz?,” naturally).
Kuo-Hao Lo’s imposing set is a cage of scaffolding, chain-link fences and video screens, dramatically lit by Christian Mejia. Alex Rodriguez’s lively choreography adds to the sense of urgency, and even the score sounds brawnier and more dynamic as played by a five-piece band led by musical director Ben Prince.
The performers play the characters as women (no fake beards here), but none of the lyrics are changed to reflect the gender. After all, the story isn’t being changed, just some of its resonances.
Jocelyn Pickett is a movingly distressed and tormented Judas (so much so that one might get teary at her bitter end), and she nails her jubilant final number “Superstar.” Janelle LaSalle makes a reflective and sorrowful Jesus, and her passionate lament “Gethsemane” is a knockout. Maita Ponce is a marvelously touching and tender Mary Magdalene, with lovely renditions of her signature numbers.
In fact, the singing is terrific throughout the cast. There were occasional audibility issues for Jesus and Caiaphas during ensemble numbers on opening night, but that should be pretty easily sorted out.
Speaking of Caiaphas, Heather Orth is entertainingly impassive as the deep-voiced and crafty high priest, nicely counterbalanced by Christen Sottolano’s snarkily contemptuous Annas. Courtney Merrell is a delight as the imperious and conflicted Pilate, and Hayley Lovgren is hilarious playing Herod as a beehived and condescendingly smiling talk-show host in a glittery dress. (The fabulous costumes are by Maggie Whitaker.) Melinda Campero is a fiery Simon the Zealot, and Angel Adedokun has some affecting moments as the mournful Peter.
With such a terrific cast and such an inspired staging, Ray of Light’s staging is more than a successful experiment. It’s a top-notch production that makes the musical itself feel more vital and electric than it’s seemed in a long time. One thing I’ll say for it—this “Shesus” is cool.
Contact Sam Hurwitt at shurwitt@gmail.com, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.

‘JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’
By Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, presented by Ray of Light Theatre
Through:  June 9
Where: Victoria Theatre, 1961 16th St., San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours, one intermission
Tickets: $15-$40;  www.rayoflighttheatre.com

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