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Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR 50th Anniversary Tour at ASU Gammage

Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR 50th Anniversary Tour at ASU Gammage

The production runs through February 5th at ASU Gammage in Tempe, AZ.

In the following review of the 50th Anniversary Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR ~ on stage at ASU Gammage Auditorium through February 5th ~ Guest Contributor David Appleford offers keen insights regarding the history of the musical and a candid assessment of the current production.

During the late sixties when musician Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice first presented their idea for writing a new theatrical musical, they were repeatedly turned away. The pitch revolved around the final days of Christ as seen through the eyes of Judas, ending with The Crucifixion. Not only were producers uninterested, one even declared that it was, "The worst idea in history!"

Inspired by the success of The Who's rock-opera Tommy, the duo decided to write their score not for the theatre but as a double album recording, and like Tommy, its musical platform would be pure rock. Once completed, the original concept double album was released in the UK in 1970 to mild reviews. But it was different in the USA. In '71, the albums were released in America and were instantly an industry smash. And it's the anniversary of that original concept album - not the '73 film nor either of the London or New York theatrical productions - that the 50th Anniversary Tour of Jesus Christ Superstar celebrates.

Now playing in Tempe until February 5th, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR leaps onto the wide ASU Gammage stage with such an explosive burst of adrenaline-fueled energy from the dancers that all previous live theatrical productions now look positively pedestrian by comparison. But what's important is that by intending to recreate the sound of the original rock album, this Timothy Sheader-directed production has mounted a tour more in the style of an in-performance rock 'n roll concert with dancers rather than a new, more traditional theatrical presentation.

The cast perform directly to the house either behind a mic stand or using hand-helds as rock singers in concert would. When the deep-throated Caiaphas (Isaac Ryckeghem) and his small ensemble of ominous looking Priests enter holding their long staffs before them, once the drums kick in during This Jesus Must Die, they turn those staffs upside down and use them as microphones, instantly assuming a rock star Freddie Mercury pose.

Early marketing for the tour talked of how you could drop your stylus on the original album as it revolved on the turntable and the sound of the song you'd hear should sound as it does recreated live on stage. A good percentage of what you'll hear at Gammage - at full rock 'n roll concert volume, of course - achieves that. Though don't drop your stylus on the album when looking for the song Could We Start Again, Please. You won't find it.

It was written later for the Broadway show and used in the movie but was never on the original album. Perhaps by including it in this 50th Anniversary tour, the show is not being altogether pure in its intention of going back to the opera's 1970 roots, but the song, as performed here with a sincere, touching emotion by Faith Jones as Mary, backed by the ensemble, is a good one. It gives the audience a chance to breathe and acts as an emotional buffer between the drama of Christ's betrayal and the deathly fate that is about to befall both a tormented Judas (Elvie Ellis ~ a wonderful, earthy voice) and a violently beaten Christ (Jack Hopewell, who wraps his voice remarkably well around those famous but challenging Ian Gilliam musical screams).

The trick when casting a new production of SUPERSTAR is to hand the stage not so much to trained actors who can sing, but to rock singers who know how to make rock come alive, which is not the same thing. And that's what this touring production has done. The concept album features rockers like Deep Purple's Ian Gilliam as Jesus who was instructed in the studio by Tim Rice to, "Sing it in your own way." Listen to the album Deep Purple In Rock and you'll hear what Rice was going for. Mike D'Abo, formerly lead singer with Manfred Mann, sang Herod's Song. And the band of backup studio musicians consisted of guitarists, drummers, keyboard artists, and saxophonists from both Joe Cocker's band and late sixties rock 'n rollers, Juicy Lucy. In this tour, the excellent five-piece band, under Mark Binns's musical direction, is seen in performance throughout the production on stage. When guitarist Isaac Helgestad takes the spotlight and plays those haunting, familiar few guitar licks that begins the SUPERSTAR Overture, the packed opening-night house in Tempe suddenly cheered loud enough to peel paint from the ceiling.

The set, which never changes, is credited as based on original designs by Tom Scutt. Scaffolding and steps allow singers to climb up and down separate levels depending on the song requirement, while off- center, leaning towards stage left, a huge cross lays flat on the ground, giving the impression it had once stood tall, then cracked at the bottom, collapsed, and fell forward, where it was left for singers and dancers to climb over, to use as a runway, or to double as the table for The Last Supper.

Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR 50th Anniversary Tour at ASU Gammage

Running at a brisk 90 minutes without intermission, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR was always a humorless project, with the one exception of the jaunty Herod's Song (Erich W. Schleck whose costume, along with his ensemble, appear like comical exaggerations of designs from something by Fellini). Interestingly, the song was originally written by Webber as an entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, but it was rejected. Rice added new lyrics to the rinky-dink tune - "Prove to me that you're no fool/Walk across my swimming pool." - and the song became the one light humored sequence in the SUPERSTAR score.

The musically dramatic highlight of the entire piece is that familiar SUPERSTAR fanfare. When it plays, directly without pause after the brutal 39 Lashes sequence, you may feel goosebumps, depending on how deeply invested you are in the opera. Yet the power of the song, once the lyrics begin, is here diminished considerably by the appearance of a battered, bruised, and heavily bloodied body of Jesus whose beatings and thuggish kicks to the body by some ensemble members continue throughout the song.

Our focus should be on Judas whose spirit has returned in search of answers to some philosophical questions - "Every time I look at you I don't understand/Why you let the things you did get so out of hand" - but all eyes are really on Jesus, who is usually absent from the stage once the song begins, but in this anniversary production he remains. It's difficult to turn away from the sight of a viciously beaten man as he continues to bleed and be cruelly hauled around like a lifeless marionette by the crowd. From the bug-eyed look of delirium coupled with flashes of sheer terror on Jesus's face, it's as if director Sheader had taken a cue from Mel Gibson's horrifically violent The Passion of the Christ and used it as the design to present the rock opera's most famous song. What the spirit of Judas is questioning, the intelligence of Tim Rice's lyrics, becomes lost, overshadowed by the violent optics.

Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR 50th Anniversary Tour at ASU Gammage

But despite the directional misstep, for the most part, this 50th Anniversary Tour presents JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR as a rock concert with moments that truly excite and exhilarate, to be experienced in the way Sir Andrew had always wanted. Written purely as a rock album, it was a score never intended for conventional theatre, to be cast with singers from the rock world, not the stage. And fifty years after the album's initial release, that's exactly what you'll see this week it at ASU Gammage.

Photo credit to Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade

ASU Gammage ~ 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe, AZ ~ ~ 480-965-3434

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