Review: 'Jesus Christ Superstar' by Sacred Heart University

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • OnStage Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle

“This production in memoriam of Caitlin Nelson” - in the program

Fairfield, CT - The Sacred Heart University Theatre Arts Program presented their excellent production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ during Palm Sunday weekend. I attended the preview performance for which all student ticket proceeds were donated to Kappa Delta Shamrock the Runway in honor of Caitlin Nelson, the SHU student who passed away that week.

I am on the record as a JCS snob, so I entered with very high expectations for the university students in their mainstage production of one of my favorite shows. The music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice was brought to life by many up and coming actors in this visually stunning contemporary take on the musical. Director Jerry Goehring’s vision was clear and he was assisted by SHU student Patrick Robinson.

I posted parking lot thoughts immediately after the performance and I began with how impressed I was with the staging of the overture. Sophomore Henley Solomon as Judas nailed the opening “Heaven On Their Minds” in his black leather jacket, continuing the momentum of the overture. High priests in all black did well in “This Jesus Must Die;” tenor Sean Whelan was perfectly cast in the role of Annas and Alex DeChino was a more baritone (but just as commanding) Caiaphas. Palms were replaced with handmade signs for “Hosanna” and the soldiers were replaced with police in black riot garb. I have never seen such debauchery as in “The Temple,” but it was very effective. “King Herod’s Song” was flashy and fun with Bradly Taylor as the king, while the scourging of Jesus in “Trial by Pilate” had no whip but plenty of blood.

Devin Towne (whose father sat behind me, no pressure!) was a powerful actor in the role of Jesus, with “Gethsemane” his standout scene. This SHU student is majoring in Exercise Science and is on the Pre-PA track. I was also seated near the many supporters of Lauren Celentano in the role of Mary Magdalene, who is ready for Broadway as far as I am concerned, but she is a freshman Elementary Education major at the moment. This young actress in her first SHU production sang the role with a soulful vibe and was simply beautiful in all of her scenes. It was no surprise to see that last year she won a Halo award for her role as Anita in ‘West Side Story’ at Sacred Heart Academy. Truth be told, some of the soloists took liberties with the melody of their numbers, but that was not true of Ms. Celentano nor Mr. Solomon.

I must add a special mention of Zachary Lane in the role of Pontius Pilate. After a silk robe for the first act “Pilate’s Dream,” the super talented young actor dressed in a black leather vest and purple shirt to play the overwhelmed Pilate to perfection. I admired this junior at SHU in his role as Jonathan Larson in ‘Tick, Tick...Boom!’ and I hope to see him in future roles before he graduates. Apostles were played by Kevin Carlson, Eddie Feeley, Jamie Fitzgerald, Robert Gestrich, Matthew Henshaw, Denis McNamara, Alex Reyes, Serginho Valcourt, Justin Weigel, producer Nicholas Patino and assistant producer Andrew Patino as Peter with Mike Villanueva as Simon.

The ensemble did an amazing job with all their scenes. Leo Carusone was the  musical director and the chorally sung pieces were very strong. The seven piece band that sat somewhere I have yet to figure out sounded amazing under his direction. Simone DePaolo choreographed an appropriate few of the numbers and kudos to the tight dance ensemble.  The theatre program is credited with the urban set design and Nicole Jablonski designed the uber contemporary costumes. I loved the stand-out jacket for Peter and that Mary had three changes. Elise Bean was in charge of hair and makeup design. Jamie Burnett designed the impressive lighting and Matthew Kreckie was in charge of sound design which had only a few minor glitches.

I was so proud of the students at my alma mater (‘81 and ‘89 MAT) for all the hard work they put into the rehearsal process for their four performances. How exciting is it that plans for their upcoming seasons include ‘Comedy of Errors,’ ‘Next to Normal,’ and ‘Noises Off’ in the spring and ‘Be More Chill,’ ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ and (wait for it…) ‘In The Heights’ in the spring of 2018. I will be there.