‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ still a trailblazer

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Can a musical play — a rock opera, in fact — continue to be relevant more than 45 years after its debut? “The Sound of Music” and even “The Music Man” come to mind as stage and screen musicals that have stood the test of time, but can “Jesus Christ Superstar,” an altogether different kind of play that blazed trails in the 1970s, keep its modern edge?

Director Joe Calarco’s new production of “Superstar” at Signature Theatre in Arlington keeps the ’70s rock styling, including electric guitar riffs, while updating costumes and imagery.

The play follows the events of Holy Week, based loosely on the Gospels. The Apostles are the ensemble in this troupe, and the characters are mostly one-dimensional.

Of course, the play focuses on Jesus (played by Nicholas Edwards), but Judas (Ari McKay Wilford) is a secondary protagonist, as is Mary Magdelene (Natascia Diaz). When one looks at the events of the final week before Jesus’ betrayal and Crucifixion through the eyes of His betrayer, the Scriptures end up a little skewed.

As the play opens, we see Judas warning Jesus that His followers are getting out of hand with “Too Much Heaven on Their Minds.” The disciples are seen as mesmerized by Jesus’ teaching — and fame — and Judas, who was the purse-keeper for the Apostles, constantly reminds Jesus that they should be helping the poor or saving Israel from the Romans; both at the same time, if possible.

The Jesus portrayed in the music and lyrics of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice emphasizes the human side of the God who became man. So, we see Christ’s conflicted side as He deals with the pressing crowds and demands on Him to be a political savior of the Jews. In one of the rare events that occurs in all three synoptic Gospels as well as in the Gospel of John, Jesus shows righteous anger in throwing out the money changers. “My temple should be a house of prayer,” Jesus sings/wails, “but you have made it a den of thieves. Get out!”

Scholars debate whether Judas betrayed Jesus because he was greedy, or he was disappointed Jesus would not save the Jews from the Romans, or whether he was predestined to do so in order for Jesus’ death and resurrection to provide salvation for all.

“Superstar” largely falls in the latter camp, making Judas a sympathetic character with no choice but to betray his teacher and friend, despite his love for Jesus. Willford brings this to the stage brilliantly, with a robust voice and a deeply pained portrayal.

Edwards is equally forceful as Jesus, whose torment in the Garden of Gethsemane brings to full circle Jesus’ human and divine natures, where he asks not to “take this cup of poison,” but assents to the will of the Father.

Diaz’ rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” is perhaps the finest interpretation of this piece this reviewer has ever seen. Though the play tends to emphasize a conjectured relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdelene (cue Dan Brown and The DaVinci Code), Diaz captures perfectly the confusion within Mary. She acknowledges that He is unlike any man she has ever known — rightfully so — and admits, “Yet, if He said he loves me, I’d be lost. I’d be frightened.” But Jesus does not say this — other than the love He has for His close friends and followers. And Mary remains a little disoriented as a result.

Bobby Smith nails the role of Pontius Pilate, especially with “Pilate’s Dream.” Not so for Thomas Adrian Simpson as Caiaphas, who seems to strain physically and vocally to reach the bottom parts of the bass register. Sam Ludwig, appropriately annoying as another high priest, Annas, rounds out the villains.

Calarco rounds out his cast with folks who take on multiple roles as Apostles, members of the crowd and Roman soldiers, including females in the mix of Apostles. Together their voices blend well and their exuberant dancing, choreographed by Karma Camp, brings to life the simple stage, designed by Luciana Stecconi.

One of the earliest ensemble numbers, “What’s the Buzz,” was incredibly hip in the early 1970s. It seems the most dated song in the show, but it’s retro enough to still work.

During the final scenes, images are displayed on side screens, which double as doorways. The occasionally graphic scenes depict protesters such as Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, and peaceful pro-life protests, as well as a shot of the World Trade Center in New York on 9/11. If the director’s intent is to show that Christianity (and other religions) can take their teachings to extreme, it misses the mark. If anything, the images of the pro-life groups do not belong, as the others all show the dangers of taking politicized religion not just to the extreme but beyond it. This is the same philosophy embodied by Simon Zealotes in “Superstar,” and is exactly what Jesus preached against when He said His kingdom was not of this world.

Oddly, the composers called the music written for the curtain call “John Nineteen: Forty-One,” a reference to Jesus being laid in the tomb. But it really harkens to John, Chapter 20, as the Jesus seen here is risen, out of the tomb.

Because of the graphic nature of some of the scenes and the mash-up of Scripture, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is not recommended for young children. Mature teens may be able to handle it, especially if it prompts family discussion about the themes.

Overall, this production — on the minimalist stage in three-quarters round in Signature’s Max Theatre — is a fine revival of one of the iconic rock musicals in American theater, bolstered by strong vocal and acting performances. “Jesus Christ Superstar” plays through July 2.

 

Christopher, a freelancer from Arlington, has been involved in musical theater since high school.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017