Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Jesus Christ Superstar"

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note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Carl A. Rossi


"JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR"

lyrics by Tim Rice; music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
directed and choreographed by Robert Johanson
musical direction by Matthew Smedal

Jesus … Nicholas Rodriguez
Judas Iscariot … Delisco
Mary Magdalene … Rona Figueroa
Caiaphas … Phillip Lamar Boykin
Annas … Michael Brian Dunn
Pontius Pilate … John Hancock
King Herod … Wayne W. Pretlow

Ensemble:

Whitney Avalon; Allison Blackwell; Darryl E. Calmese, Jr.;
Shana Carr; Derrick Cobey; Colin Donnell; Constantine Germanacos;
Kevin Hale; Andrew Haserlat; Miles Johnson; Holly Laurent;
Jayme McDaniel; Leo Nouhan; Christopher Regan; Jason W. Shuffler;
Byron St. Cyr; Scott Sussman

Children’s Ensemble; Youth Ensemble:
Tory Bradlee; Shane Fernando Braz; Victoria Cargill;
Isabelle Miller; Andrew Murdock

Orchestra:

Conductor; Keyboard … Matthew Smedal
Violin … Zoia Bologovsky
Guitar … Jonathan Finn
Trombone … Walter Bostian
Drums … Kenneth Hadley
Bass … David Buda
Trumpets … Jam Daly; Tom Palance
Cello … Timothy Roberts
Keyboards … Adam Souza
Alto Sax; Flue; Clarinet … Ernest Sola III

To compare the original 1970 studio recording of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR with the North Shore Musical Theatre’s current production is to observe how rock music and dramatic narrative have fused over time: the Who’s TOMMY was the first official rock opera but remained album-bound for decades whereas Messrs. Rice and Lloyd Webber’s Passion Play came to both stage and screen soon after its conception; nowadays, sung-through entertainments no longer raise eyebrows and this granddaddy of them all slips back into the fold that it helped to create, relatively revision-free compared to TOMMY which made its belated stage debut as an updated, upbeat parable --- relatively, mind you.

Those of my generation will recall their amazement and/or delight over SUPERSTAR’s original studio album --- was it a freak novelty or a brave new art form? --- as well as the controversy that raged over it from the pulpit down to our parents: the Messrs. Rice and Lloyd Webber had wed the Bible to the stigma of rock music, opened the floor to the Son of God being “just a man” and recast Judas Iscariot as a sympathetic traitor instead of the traditional villain --- in its own way, this is a deeply religious work despite its questions. Nearly forty years later, I am again amazed and delighted that JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR retains its youthful freshness; since the Church no longer wields the power that it once had and Dan Brown’s THE DA VINCI CODE theorizes that Jesus may have been married to Mary Magdalene, the Messrs. Rice and Lloyd Webber’s depiction of Jesus’ humanity no longer startles; their opera hasn’t been politically corrected as in SHOWBOAT’s case but its sound is now different: listen to the studio album and you will hear rockers wailing their characterizations (but always held in check), backed by buzz-guitars and such and propelled by the production’s feverish energy --- here was Something New, all right. The 1971 Broadway cast album and the 1973 film soundtrack tailor the score to the genre’s aesthetics: the orchestrations are smoother and more listener-friendly and the roles are mainly performed by theatre artists (Yvonne Elliman’s Mary Magdalene and Barry Dennen’s Pilate are on all three recordings); the results are more grounded, more conventional. Three traditions have sprung up since then: Judas is black to balance a white Jesus; Pilate is really Caligula, and Herod is a flamboyant queen; the latter two traditions should be retired --- and who decreed that the Virgin Mary should now wander in and out as a wimpled den mother, claiming some of Mary Magdalene’s lyrics along the way?

To quote from the score, Robert Johanson’s staging for the North Shore production falls evenly between the inspired and the “sad and tired” --- thus, the big numbers disappoint in varying degrees: “Heaven on Their Minds” has Judas upstaged by the Biblical tableau below him, making a neutral first impression; “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” has the V.M. putting her son to bed while Mary Magdalene wanders when close devotion should be her game (is her beloved really a mama’s boy?); the show-stopping “Herod’s Song” is ho-hum Camp for the masses; the thirty-nine lashes become a free-for-all with cast members rushing up, one by one, to either rescue or mock Jesus (the V.M. gets one in the back, herself); “Superstar” is hellish disco, saddled with a slide show far campier than Herod’s turn --- even the Crucifixion was ruined for me when Jesus muttered from the Cross, “Who is my mother? Where is my mother?” and Guess Who was already stretching her hand up to him while the Magdalene gets to huddle with the others? On the inspired side, the Temple and Lepers scenes are beautifully staged and thrice Mr. Johanson works wonders when using the parameter of the North Shore’s circle: “This Jesus Must Die” has Caiaphas promenading in murderous thought while his aged Priests follow behind him, twitching and muttering; in “Pilate’s Dream”, the procurator sings while staring at a vision of Jesus circling in a blue light; in “The Arrest”, the sudden sweep of a murderous crowd dogging Jesus and the soldiers brought tears to my eyes --- how odd that these minor scenes prove more memorable than the major ones!

Aside from John Hickok’s Pilate and Wayne W. Pretlow’s Herod which are performed in the above-mentioned traditions, the North Shore ensemble impresses with its operatic singing and aerobic dancing though Delisco’s Judas only starts to catch fire in “Judas’ Death” and Rona Figuerora is too “calm and cool” to convince me of Mary Magdalene’s love for Jesus (in the Last Supper, she sits at Jesus’ right hand --- in homage to Mr. Brown’s novel?); Phillip Lamar Boykin brings a majestic presence and the deepest of bass voices to the sly Caiaphas. Blessedly, Nicholas Rodriguez is an ideal Jesus, composed of Sunday school iconography and a New Broadway voice that can ride those soaring, agonized notes yet give way to the softest of falsetto utterances, vibrato-free; his rendition of “Gethsemane” is the evening’s true show-stopper, one of Shakespearean proportions --- Lear’s Storm Scene minus the storm. Colin Donnell is a handsome Peter and, despite my carping, the sounds that Shana Carr’s Virgin Mary makes throughout the evening are pure and silvery.

Costumier Gregory J. Poplyk has created a riveting swirl of fabrics that range from jeweled to raggedy though Mr. Rodriguez unintentionally destroyed the illusion whenever he turned to reveal a zipper going up his back. Overall, it’s good to know that an old rock opera can still be made new, once again --- and that’s what theatre is and should be all about: making miracles.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" (19 September - 8 October)
NORTH SHORE MUSIC THEATRE
62 Dunham Road, BEVERLY MA
1 (978) 232-7200

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

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