BWW Review: Reconciling Politics and Religion in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Garden Theater
The Garden Theatre kicks off it's 10th season with JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. This production features a number of actors who are debuting at the Garden for the first time and a number of returning faces who are all ready to rock. With a familiar story, a famous score, and great live musicians this production should have risen to the top of Garden Theater debuts.
It is my observation that people either really love or really hate Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. I'm a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR has been on my list forever. I admit didn't love it, my mind had trouble reconciling the staging choices, musical score, and choreography with the story. The songs are not my favorite of the Webber repertoire, but I always go in with an open mind.
In the anthology of ALW, this show was his third, after JOSEPH AND THE TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT. For fans, this should give you some context about his writing style back then. Webber partnered with lyricist Tim Rice to create this rock opera album, which later turned into the stage musical we know today. I want to believe this production was the BOOK OF MORMON of its day, but it was the early 70s, so I expected some juxtaposition. In April 2018, NBC will air a live musical of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. It should be interesting.
Reading Director Rob Winn Anderson's notes in the playbill prior really helped add some clarity. Anderson draws parallels to Jesus' notoriety and his eventual downfall to celebrities today and their meteoric rises and sometimes destruction. He also points out that though it has Jesus as a character, it is not a religious musical, but a political one. I absolutely agree with this sentiment. With this frame of mind, we see a story based around someone who speaks out against the norm and then what happens to that person when the establishment feels threatened. It also shows how power corrupts and how friendships can quickly fall apart.
The staging is interesting. The back of the set is a stone backdrop with a sky, but in the middle is a white box. This box moves throughout the show and serves as a functional set piece. It feels out of place, but again, I expected juxtapositions. There are also really nice projections that are used inconsistently throughout the show. I wish they were used more. The costuming was the biggest confusion for me. Some characters wore what you'd expect during this time, and then there were other ensemble members in grungy jeans. I love live music and at times the band overpowered the singers. Also the random guy wandering onstage at times really drives in the rock musical point. While I found these items to be distracting, nevertheless the performers were good.
Natalie McKnight Palmer steals the show as Mary Magdalene. Though she only has one solo, "I Don't Know Hot To Love Him," she nails it and it's probably the best version of the song I've ever heard. Palmer is the soothing character that is so needed during the intense moments. Her acting is calm and empathetic.
Shea Rafferty as Judas Iscariot is appropriately upset at the right times. I know that sounds weird, but I found him to be a much more sympathetic character than Bible stories give him credit. Vocally this guy is a powerhouse who is made for rock and roll.
As Jesus, Benjamin Van Diepen can rival Idina Menzel in his high note belting capabilities. That being said, just because you can, doesn't mean you should. The moments of high belting didn't make sense for the scene or character. If we take the rock and roll away from the character, Diepen plays well into the "Superstar" idea of Jesus. You can see he is burdened by the crowd's worship. Spoiler alert: Jesus dies, but Diepen does so with grace. It is definitely an emotional scene that had the entire audience holding their breath. The staging during this death scene is beautiful. This was the only time the white box did not feel out of place. The rich orchestrations fill the room and there is silence.
Directed by Rob Winn Anderson, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR plays at the Garden Theater now through October 1st. Be aware that there is a mature audience warning due to displays of violence. For tickets and more information, visit www.gardentheatre.org.
Photo credit: The Garden Theatre