Review: ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is Simply Wonderful at DPAC

The company of the North American Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. (Photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman – MurphyMade)

The 50th-anniversary national tour of “Jesus Christ Superstar” now rocking the Durham Performing Arts Center delivers a top-notch and timeless production of the seminal musical anchored by a strong cast that you simply do not want to miss. The production, which originated in Britain and won the Olivier Award for best musical revival in 2016, manages to simultaneously embrace the rock-concert vibe and high energy originally intended for the musical while also feeling incredibly theatrical. 

From the very start, this production, part rock concert, part dance show, part light show – will grab you and capture your attention for the full 90 minutes. There is no intermission, which I thought was just fine because you will not want to be interrupted. With music and lyrics by Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winners Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar is set against the backdrop of an extraordinary series of events during the final weeks in the life of Jesus Christ as seen through the eyes of Judas.

The company of the North American Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. (Photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman – MurphyMade)

Aaron LaVigne does a fantastic job playing Jesus in this production with the vocal chops to handle the range required and he hits the high notes with ease as he plays his plugged-in acoustic guitar as he sings. Omar Lopez-Cepero was excellent as Judas and a perfect counterpoint to LaVigne’s Jesus. Jenna Rubaii is equally tremendous as Mary Magdalene. Her scenes where she comforts and supports Jesus provide soft spots in an otherwise hard-hitting musical. Rubaii’s rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is simply wonderful.

The supporting cast is mostly comprised of Jesus’ disciples and the various government officials hunting him down. This is one hard working ensemble as they are dancing non-stop throughout the show, and the choreography is superb. Their costuming, along with Jesus’ and Judas’, is simple. Hoodies, t-shirts, loose work-out clothes and sneakers. In contrast, the costumes for the priests are both simple and ornate.

The company of the North American Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. (Photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman – MurphyMade)

The staging for this production is simple but very effective. The multi-level set, which elevates an 11-piece band looks like it is made from weathered I-beams and provides an industrial like backdrop with moving beams of lights enhance the Superstar experience.

This production of Superstar is as high energy as they come filled with rock and melodic ballads with a healthy dose of high drama and irreverence. I loved this show and think you will to. Don’t miss it this weekend as it wraps up its visit to Durham this Sunday!

“Jesus Christ Superstar performs at the Durham Performing Arts Center through Sunday, June 5th. For tickets and more information visit https://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/jesus-christ-superstar.

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“Hamilton” Returns to DPAC for Another Fabulous Run!

Hamilton” touring production (photo by Joan Marcus)

Ever since it was announced that the touring production of “Hamilton” would be making its return to Durham it has been the most sought after ticket at DPAC. The show opened earlier this month to a packed house and shows through this Sunday, June 5th. What can I say about this show that has not been said before? This musical was even better the second time around. Back in 2018 when I first saw the touring production during their first visit to DPAC it was one of those rare and beautiful instances where something with a lot of buzz really does live up to all the hype….and it still does this time around too!

Like many before me I have oftern wondered how a hip-hop based musical about one of our nation’s more obscure founding fathers could work so well. But work it does. Hip-hop is not just a music style it is also the voice for the underprivileged – a perfect match for the title character who is an orphaned outsider from the west indies, who for all his influence on the founding of our government, will never be eligible to be president.

In retrospect delivering the story of Alexander Hamilton in the hip-hop style makes perfect sense and is actually a pure stroke of genius. First of all there with so many historical characters in the show and the extensive history covered in both acts, there is simply a massive amount of information the audience needs to take in.

Hamilton” touring production (photo by Joan Marcus)

It just so happens that hip-hop fits four times as many words into each measure of music compared to other styles of music – making hip hop a perfect delivery mechanism. But the real genius of it all is that through the fusion of hip hop and the musical form, the creators of this show transform American history into a contemporary format reflecting the fact the America’s history and the road ahead belongs to all men and women regardless of their color.

The show starts off fast and does not let up until the intermission. In the first number “Alexander Hamilton” we are introduced to the title character, played this time around by Edred Utomi, his compatriots, including the man who will ultimately take his life – Aaron Burr, played by the wonderful Josh Tower.

Every single member of this cast delivers a performance that makes you think they were born for the role they are playing. Morales and Walker are wonderful as Hamilton and Burr. Both command the room whenever they are on stage and when they share it you can sense the growing tension of these one-time friends drifting apart through life as their beliefs and politics evolve resulting in their tragic duel in the final act.

Hamilton” touring production (photo by Joan Marcus)

Every single member of this cast delivers a performance that makes you think they were born for the role they are playing. Morales and Walker are wonderful as Hamilton and Burr. Both command the room whenever they are on stage and when they share it you can sense the growing tension of these one-time friends drifting apart through life as their beliefs and politics evolve resulting in their tragic duel in the final act.

The entire ensemble is so strong, but a few really stand out. Like Zoe Jensen as Eliza Hamilton, Paul Oakley Stovall as George Washington and David as both Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson (many of the lead roles in this production were double-cast). It was a pleasure seeing each of these actors pouring their souls into these historical figures and their portrayal of their unique personalities. I just can’t say enough about the fantastic job Park did as the energetic Lafayette and Jefferson. I felt that every time he was on stage his charisma stole the scene if not the show.

The set itself is kind of secondary to what you are seeing on stage and doesn’t really change much throughout the performance. I’m not sure if the muted scenery was done on purpose, but in the end that works perfectly and lets the focus be on the actors and their words.

Transitions from scene to scene are seamless and the use of simple props works well. There is also the crafty use of a rotating stage that works wonders for scenes where multiple actors are walking and interacting, providing multiple perspectives of the action as well as smart “rewind” and slow motion sequences.

In the end “Hamilton” is a cultural wonder with choreography and vocals that are among the best I have ever seen. With its talented cast, this touring production delivers an amazing theater experience on all levels. I am grateful that this production made a second visit to in Durham and that I had the opportunity to see such a wonderful show like this again that has such a cultural impact that is sure to continue for years to come.

 “Hamilton” performs at the Durham Performing Arts Center through Sunday, June 5th. For tickets and more information visit https://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/hamilton-2022.

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Olde Raleigh Distillery to Host Mixology and Bourbon Blending Classes This Weekend!

Head Distiller and Master Proprietor Brandon McCraney is taking customers of his Zebulon-based bourbon distillery to school. From private flight tastings to mixology classes and more, this weekend, Brandon and Olde Raleigh Distillery are giving locals unlimited access to the ins and outs of creating and tasting their blended bourbons.

On Saturday, the distillery will host a hands-on cocktail course where they’ll guide you through the art of crafting the perfect bourbon-based cocktail. Tickets for the 90 minute cocktail course are $42 per person. Each cocktail will feature two of the distillery’s signature bourbon blends, and bottles will be available on site for purchasing to make at home!

On Sunday, Brandon will lead a Bourbon 101 Workshop, where he’ll talk through the history and key events that have shaped our nation’s spirit and guide a sensory tasting and discussion. Class starts at 2pm and tickets are $55 per person.

From picking the right barrels all the way through production until his blended bourbons hit the nose (then the lips), Brandon will break things down to the last scientific drop in hopes that through education, he can cultivate a community of bourbon enthusiasts with an appreciation for the process.

For more information about Olde Raleigh visit their webste at https://olderaleighdistillery.com and follow them on instagram at @olderaleighdistillery

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My Fair Lady is a Delight at DPAC!

Touring Production of “My Fair Lady” (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The North American tour of critically-acclaimed production of “My Fair Lady” opened at DPAC this past Tuesday to a full house and continues with shows through this Mother’s Day weekend. This production of the classic truly rises to the occasion by both sticking close to the original source material, George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play about England’s rigid social class snobbery, while also finding a balance with more contemporary social norms and avoids the outdated theme in which female characters return to misogynistic men who treat them poorly.

In this production the cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle isn’t a cartoonish and helpless character played for laughs as she’s subjected to relentlessly demeaning treatment and insults by phonetician Henry Higgins. While Sheree Ahmed typically plays Eliza on this tour, her understudy, Nicole Ferguson, played part on Tuesday night and did a wonderful job. Ferguson compellingly captures Eliza’s struggle to improve herself and the joy she finds in it as she grows and realizes she is deserving of respect. She has grown and is no longer the student.

Touring Production of “My Fair Lady” (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Laird Mackintosh is excellent as the outlandish and some-what man-child like Professor Higgins that you cannot help but hate him. He delivers his withering comments to Eliza in a way that feels more oblivious than intentionally hateful but still, his self-important and misogynistic ways persist throughout and he never learns to change his ways, even if means he will lose the one he desires. His character repeatedly turns to the audience to deliver lines about language and social class, further cementing the relationship between tutor and student.

The sets and costumes in this production are gorgeous, with lavish, forced perspective scenery by Michael Yeargan and stunning period costumes by Catherine Zuber. Everything about the stage work, setting, and lighting is top notch as it transports you into the world of early 20th century England.

This production of My Fair Lady was a delight and a must see by anyone a fan of this classic! One of the biggest question in modern productions of “My Fair Lady” is whether the director will reunite Higgins and Eliza in the end. This production makes a choice that I won’t spoil here, but it’s one that may have audience members drawing their own conclusions at the end of the show.

“My Fair Lady” shows at DPAC through this Sumday, May 8th. To purchase tickets visit https://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/my-fair-lady

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“Oklahoma!” National Tour comes to DPAC!

The National Tour Cast of “Oklahoma!” – Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

So let me just say up front that the national touring production of “Oklahoma!” that opened this week at the Durham Performing Arts Center is not quite like any production of the 1943 musical you’ve seen before unless you saw this Tony Award-winning revival on Broadway during its 2019 run.

Without altering the existing text, Director Daniel Fish and this extremely talented 12-member ensemble shine a new light on this classic tale of two romantic triangles, one played for drama, the other for laughs. What’s different is that a show that was originally normally presented as a celebration of the American spirit has been revamped to unearths the darkness beneath the surface with fear-based hostility toward outsiders that continues to fester today.

The musical takes place, ostensibly, in the early 1900s with Oklahoma on the cusp of statehood. The basic story is the same: a tale about farm girl Laurey and her courtship by two rival suitors, cowboy Curly and the farmhand Jud. Violence and the threat of violence is simmering just below the surface throughout this production.  The setting staging is simple, with most of the story takes place in a community hall festooned with gun racks, holding dozens of rifles hinting at the legacy of violence that continues to infect the social landscape of America today.

Christopher Bannow, Sasha Hutchings & Sean Grandillo in “Oklahoma!” – Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Ordinarily, the story pits good guy Curly against the sinister Jud, but in this production Jud is portrayed as a somewhat sympathetic character while “good guy” Curly ultimately gives in to violence to get what he wants and a community that conspires to bend justice and overlook the crime.

Fish’s production constantly surprises with such touches as live-feed black-and-white night-vision video of the actors and some scenes played entirely in darkness. You can feel the audience holding its collective breath during some of the darker exchanges. Other scenes are more static and slow, with actors seated. With intermission musical clocks is almost three hours.

Though it does have its lighter moments, this production is often more thought-provoking than merely optimistic. The ending of this “Oklahoma!” manages to be both unsettling and enlightening, turning what used to be a happy and joyous ending into a more modern statement view of how our justice system favors the powerful.

The ending of this “Oklahoma!” manages to be both ominous and enlightening, turning what used to be a happy ending into a view of how our criminal justice system favors the powerful. During the final number, a reprise of the title song, you can’t help but feel everyone is singing the song of optimism so hard because they’re trying to purge their underlying sorrow and trauma.

Oklahoma! shows at DPAC through this Sunday, April 3rd. To get tickets visit https://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/oklahoma

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