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Salem's risk with 'Jesus Christ Superstar' is reward

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Published: Sat, June 4, 2011 @ 10:54 p.m.

Salem Community Theater isn't known for staging risqué productions. Perhaps that's why it is so refreshing to see the theater's production "Jesus Christ Superstar" go so well.

The Andrew Lloyd Webber classic, directed by Michael Dempsey, opened to a well-earned standing ovation Friday night.

A number of the actors in the production, including many of the leads, are reprising recent roles in the same production at Canton's Players Guild Theater. The re-casting of roles, including Vaughn Schmidt as Jesus of Nazareth and Khaled Tabbara (The Zou's frontman) as Judas, meant a polished opening weekend.

Schmidt and Tabbara are standouts in the production, adding the necessary rock 'n roll flair to Anthony Ruggiero's musical direction.

Salem Community Theater's production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" comes to life with turbocharged energy from the first note of the first number. Credit to choreographer Michael Lawrence Akers, with additional choreography by Sarah Durham and dance captain Connie Baer, this cast knows how to move. "The Temple" is a highlight of the show because of the dancing.

Tabbara's entrance as Judas ("Heaven on Their Minds") sincerely rocks and sets the right tone for the production. His obvious rock background is matched by a great handle on the score. (Which should come as no surprise, as Tabbara frequently references the production as a influence during interviews.)

Schmidt is equally compelling in the leading role. His slender frame and long locks are perfect for the character. Aesthetics aside, Schmidt carries the show's burden of challenging vocal runs with a unique style that includes a blood-curdling scream that easily capture's the audience's attendance.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" at Salem Community Theater, though, is successful beyond having two great singers: it's the cast's spirit and enthusiasm that give the audience a thrilling production. Their boundless energy in selections like "Hosanna" that make the evening memorable. Schmidt should also be credited with a comfort onstage that lets him gracefully navigate through the small space that's filled with a large cast without any indication of uncertainty.

Joining Tabbara onstage in the production is The Zou band member Bernadette Lim as Mary Magdalene, who is herself no stranger to local stages. She "I Don't Know How to Love Him" coolly and simply. She's also delightful with Kristopher Ray North as Peter in "Could We Start Again Please?" at the end of the show.

While the first act of the production begins like a bullet, the second act starts slow and tenderly with "The Last Supper." Schmidt and Tabbara again shine in their roles, each enhanced with the onstage chemistry that's needed for the production to reach out into the hearts of audience members.

Act two of "Jesus Christ Superstar" is full of cameos by local actors that exceed expectations. Chuck Simon is engaging as Pontius Pilate and Robert Dennick Joki is hilarious as King Herod.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" continues at Salem Community Theater, 490 E. State St., next weekend. Call 330-332-9688 for reservations.

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