BWW Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Dutch Apple
It can be hard to remember that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR was once more than a bit controversial - in fact, people's reactions to it when it came out in the film version and everyone could finally see it were much like the reactions to the election this past November; some people were thrilled, and others violently disgusted. At the time, the combination of the Gospels and rock music was considered outrageous, and the love story of Mary Magdalene rather horrifying. Now church groups put it on - how times change.
Times have changed enough that the hippie vibe of SUPERSTAR and GODSPELL is now retro rather than modern. Some producers and directors have attempted to restore the true aura of rebellion, a la the Australian revision, to SUPERSTAR by linking the rebellion in ancient Israel to the modern Occupy movement, which works very well. Amy Marie McCleary has directed a more traditional version of the show, which by virtue of its solidly hippie presence really feels a bit more dated than the Biblical story itself.
Not that JCS is a bad show. It has some tremendous music, especially when it pokes fun at other musical genres. "King Herod's Song" is a nod to the singer and chorus line routine, and here is nicely staged and with a Herod, Hassan Nazari-Roboti, whose voice can move mountains. Similarly, Judas, who well may be the real star of the Webber-Rice version of the story, is played by Chasdan Ross Mike, who makes "Heaven On Their Minds," "Damned for All Time," and "Superstar" sound easy, so solid is his voice and his performance (in "Damned for All Time," he's spellbinding).
It's tough to play Jesus. No two ways about it. Not only here, but in any story containing the character of Jesus. If one follows scripture, he is both God and man, powerful but serving at his Father's will, deliverer and tortured by his knowing his burden. That comes through in JCS, but Jonathan Yoder spends a great deal of the show, particularly in Act One, smiling his way through it merrily, almost smugly. Though I once panned a production of this show for putting Jesus in a Che Guevara tee shirt, a bit of that rebellious anger would serve this production well, rather than the sleek, self-satisfied savior whose "the poor are always with us" seems like an offhand dismissal of those who don't need quite as much pampering as he does when it comes time for his foot massage. He conveys a One Percent Jesus, not one leading a rebellion against tyranny. He's a bit faster to anger and better-suffering in Act Two, where Yoder handles the crucifixion scene well, but it's a long stretch getting there. It's Mark's Judas who's the rebel here, the one who wants to stop suffering. It's not quite so apparent what Yoder's Jesus wants.
Mary Magdalene is Ilana Gabrielle, who's possessed of a radiant appearance and a fine singing voice. The latter is required to make an audience happy with "I Don't Know How to Love Him." In that most important of stage challenges, she succeeds admirably. This is a woman who can belt, and that will take her far.
While the apostles look like a crowd of college students from Berkeley in a photo from LIFE Magazine in the Sixties - a bit rebellious in grooming but ultimately nice, safe kids who will settle down someday - JP White does far more with the costumes of the Temple priests and the leadership of the Israelites. Soldiers look somewhat Assyrian with a tinge of ninja, the priests rock out royal purple, and Pilate and Herod are fairly magnificently garbed.
JP Meyer and the orchestra pit are clearly enjoying themselves with 1970s rock opera. It's a great genre for a pit band to play with, and there's no reason they shouldn't be having fun, but they're able to overpower the singing occasionally. With the sets of lungs on stage, that's a feat.
More than anything, however, your fellow audience members may be there for the music. There's a good bit of singing along to oneself in the audience during some of the major numbers, and not much recognition of the irony of JCS on stage right now, because in a more traditional production such as this one, the political radicalism represented by the followers of Jesus at the time of Pilate doesn't automatically relate to all audience members.
Through March 18 at Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre. Visit DutchApple.com for tickets and information.