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Holy rock ’n’ rollers bring the good news to LIC

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Posted: Thursday, December 1, 2016 10:30 am

The World Voice Ensemble’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera based on the Gospels’ accounts of the last week in the life of the title character, began a weeklong engagement at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City Sunday night.

Nearly 50 years after its conception, it remains a powerful piece of theater despite some technical and vocal issues that slightly marred the opening night performance.

According to a note in the program, the production company was formed for the “educational and charitable purposes of giving international students of the arts and professional international artists the opportunity to perform, with Americans, in professional quality theater in New York City.”

The company also provides the performers with “free line pronunciation lessons,” the better to be understood on stage. While an array of accents was discernible (members of the cast hail from locales such as Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Finland, Spain — even the Bronx!), the multicultural mixture added an interesting element to the production.

This is a bare bones, 90-minute rendition of the piece, performed without intermission, mostly in modern dress and almost entirely sans sets and props; even the famous Last Supper scene is re-enacted without the benefit of actual food or drink.

Several individuals and scenes stood out Sunday night. Steffen Alexander Whorton, buff and tattooed, makes for an unconventional Jesus of Nazareth, singing in a powerful, often emotion-filled voice. (The entire show is sung through, with no spoken dialogue.) He reaches his musical apex in “Gethsemane,” wherein he ultimately surrenders to the will of God.

Whorton’s strongest dramatic moments occur when he is confronted by lepers, cripples and beggars, all wanting to be helped or healed; while subjected to severe whippings at the hands of a bloodthirsty mob; and during the climactic crucifixion scene, which is particularly well-staged.

Leo Grinberg as Judas Iscariot lets his impressive tenor soar throughout, though at times, particularly early on, his voice was nearly drowned out by the terrific but blaring three-piece band, led by “band master” Satoko Mori. (No fewer than three musical directors have been variously credited.)

In the third pivotal role of Mary Magdalene, Paloma Munoz is entrusted with the show’s most famous song, a declaration of unconditional love called “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” She delivers it in a sweet voice, though the number did not register high on the emotional scale.

Kenneth Kyle Martinez as Caiaphas, the high priest; Jerel Armstrong (the company’s co-president) as fellow priest Annas; and Mathew Bautista as the very theatrical King Herod make strong appearances.

In this show, the ensemble is an integral part of almost every number; as a whole, they produce a vibrant, harmonious sound, though, individually, several members displayed surprisingly weak vocal projection.

Director and choreographer Namiko Wada keeps the action moving nonstop throughout, creating memorable stage pictures and a couple of stand-out production numbers in “King Herod’s Song” and especially “Superstar.”

In addition to the overly loud musicians early on, opening night saw several late lighting cues, keeping some actors momentarily in the dark. These issues will likely be ironed out for future performances.

The playing space is quite small, with most of the action taking place within inches of the audience, making for an interestingly intimate experience.

‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

When: Fri.-Sun., Dec. 2-4, varying times

Where: The Secret Theatre, 44-02 23 St., Long Island City

Tickets: $20. (718) 392-0722, secrettheatre.com

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