Review: Moonlight opens summer season with smart, well-sung ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

Richard Bermudez, center, as Jesus in "Jesus Christ Superstar."
Richard Bermudez, center, as Jesus in Moonlight Stage Productions’ “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
(Courtesy of Karli Cadel)

The production merges 1970s glam, hippie costumes and squealing guitars with modern projections and special effects


“Jesus Christ Superstar” isn’t produced very often these days. Case in point: A new production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical that opened Wednesday at the Moonlight Amphitheatre is the first time the 1971 musical has returned to the Vista theater’s outdoor stage in 30 years.

Why? Bible-themed passion play musicals aren’t for everyone. And the 52-year-old rock opera’s hippie love-fest vibe and squealing guitar feedback-infused score have become dated.

But Moonlight Stage Productions surprises with director Steven Glaudini’s brisk and smartly imagined production that honors the show’s roots while embracing new staging technology to gives the musical a modern look and appeal.

That rethinking begins with Blake McCarty’s ‘70s-style DayGlo color projections, which open the show with onscreen translations of some of the show’s religious verbiage — Redeemer, Savior, Christ — as a nod to the non-Bible-reading secular audience.

Brian Justin Crum in the finale of Moonlight Stage Productions' "Jesus Christ Superstar."
(Courtesy of Fred Tracey)

Then comes San Diego native Brian Justin Crum, the show’s far-and-away standout as Judas Iscariot, the disillusioned disciple who betrayed Jesus in his final days. Crum, an “America’s Got Talent” finalist, has stage charisma and a big, gorgeous and impeccable voice capable of singing all his character’s soaring solos. He starts the show with a knockout performance of “Heaven on Their Minds,” then closes it two hours later in ‘70s glam-rocker style with platform boots and leather pants for “Superstar.”

For those not familiar with the musical’s story, it covers Jesus’s last week, when he hosted his last supper, was arrested, tried and crucified. In this musical, Jesus is a near-silent cypher, swept along in the feverish mania of worshipful crowds who ultimately turn on their superstar. Thanks to some stagecraft magic, Jesus’s final moment in this production are visually stunning.

Golden-voiced Moonlight veteran Richard Bermudez sensitively portrays Jesus as an isolated people-pleaser crushed by the inevitability of his death. Monika Peña delivers one of the richest vocal performances I’ve heard as devotee Mary Magdalene. DeAndre Simmons impresses with his deep bass notes as the priest Caiaphas and Jeffrey Ricca as Pontius Pilate and Max DeLoach as the disciple Peter also sing well. Dallas McLaughlin offers comic relief as the deeply cynical bon vivant King Herod and the Zane Camacho hits the show’s highest notes as the dastardly priest Annas.

The show’s 36-member cast move and dance fluidly around Kevin Depinet’s two-story Roman column and scaffolding stage. Jimmy Locust’s choreography mixes the free-flowing style of religious ecstatic dancing with the lyricism of 1970s-style balletic jazz. Renetta Lloyd designed the flowy, hippie-inspired costumes, Jennifer Edwards designed lighting and Brandon Boomizad designed sound.

Music director/conductor Lyndon Pugeda led an 11-piece rock band in the orchestra pit that’s most notable for the electric guitar work by Charles Jirkovsky and Nikko Nobleza.

For a score written with intentionally jarring dissonance to build a feeling of disorder and unease, the music performances are note-perfect, and hearing this familiar score that I grew up listening to on an LP in the 1970s, was ear-pleasing and nostalgic in a good way.

‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Through May 27

Where: Moonlight Amphitheatre, Brengle Terrace Park, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista

Tickets: $18-$63

Phone: (760) 724-2110