God or man? Musical rocks Chrysler and stirs passions
Fifty years into the run of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the story of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth still raises fierce passions across the globe.
The Passion is technically the last week of Jesus’ life, beginning on Palm Sunday when he enters Jerusalem in triumph, moving through his arrest, then his crucifixion on Good Friday. The week ends with what Christians believe to be his resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday.
The events have been the subject of passion plays for hundreds of years, including our work in question, by composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber (he of the megahits “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” 1968; “Cats,” 1981; and “Phantom of the Opera,” 1986) and lyricist Tim Rice (“The Lion King,” 1997). In interviews, the two creators frankly proclaimed that “Superstar” was written from the point of view of Judas, “with Christ as a man, not as a god.” But the mob in Jerusalem two millennia ago wanted to see and understand divinity, and so, controversially and inconsistently, do we.
In its run at Chrysler Hall, Webber and Rice give us 90 blazing minutes of screaming guitars and syncopated synthesizers (mega-sound, produced by only five partly visible onstage musicians). The lyrics, as is often the case at Chrysler, are hard to hear through the questionable sound system. (To hear the lyrics clearly, stream the also controversial but worthwhile 1973 film version directed by Norman Jewison.) For comparison’s sake, you may also want to see Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) with its thoroughly human, even sensualist Jesus, and then Mel Gibson’s highly touted but ultra-controversial 2004 “The Passion
of the Christ,” divisive not only for its violence but for its implicit antisemitism.
Antisemitism would seem to be an issue endemic to the very subject matter of the Passion with “Superstar,” in its dark depictions of sadistic high priests, doing little to combat the problem. It is possible to do more to remind audiences that Jesus was a Jew, as were his first followers.
But here, finally, is how Timothy Sheader, director of the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre London production of Chrysler’s touring “Superstar,” has made his own decisions about tweaking the relative dastardliness of Judas, the priests and the mob that turns on Jesus. (Spoiler: Jesus and Judas take their bows at the curtain call hand-in-hand.)
The set suggests a contemporary urban block of houses (windows tall and open to glimpse the musicians, dancers, entering and exiting disciples, etc.). A closer look at the set reveals a dozen or more prefiguring crosses with various decorative or architectural functions. (The actual crucifixion cross will be assembled onstage using, of all things, electronic speaker stands.) The two thieves of the biblical story having been eliminated by Webber and Rice, we need only one cross for the actual act.
A raised platform is one giant cross which will later serve, though at an awkward angle, as the table for the Last Supper, with the disciples temporarily posing as if for Leonardo’s painting. Suggested crosses are even integral to Drew McOnie’s choreography. This is a genuine dance musical, though dancers’ moves are often hard, frantic, even ugly. The cross is suggested by dancers’ arms oddly crossing their own bodies; likewise, there are frequent lifts of Jesus on his back, arms outstretched, way over the heads of the participating dancers. (It resembles his coming pose when nailed on his back to the cross.) Jesus, disciples and followers wear contemporary but flowing street garb, including sneakers. The look is appropriate, given the trope that Jesus and friends form a loose rock band.
Actor Jack Hopewell, our appealing Jesus, is actually making a second coming, having previously played Jesus in “Godspell.” He not only totes his “ax” (i.e., instrument) but sometimes plays respectable rhythm guitar to accompany his own or others’ singing. His best friend Judas
(an aptly conflicted-looking Elvie Ellis) begins the show bitterly dismayed by the actions of his leader/ friend. Judas loves Jesus (he will sing a chorus, partly in ill-advised falsetto, of Mary Magdalene’s actual love song later in the play) but he is also bitterly jealous of his friend’s charisma and fame.
Mary Magdalene (Hampton Roads’ own, very talented Faith Jones) sings the greatest, most memorable love song from the show: “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” But she’s somewhat hampered in putting over the song by the overall “rock star” motif. This hit is sung concertstyle using a conventional handheld microphone, wires, stand and all. It perhaps conveys the ‘70s feeling of the original show, but it somehow hinders the emotional impact of this crucial moment. Mary is joined by assorted females in the crowd acclaiming and then condemning Jesus.
But with Jesus’ mother Mary having been cut from this Passion (by Webber and Rice), Magdalene must carry a disproportionately heavy weight, representing all womankind.
Director Sheader’s insistence on the rock trope becomes both the show’s strength (strong singing and dance moves) and weakness. The black costumes and figuratively dark depiction of the priests (Grant Hodges as a basso profundo Caiaphas, with Kodiak Thompson as a great slimy toady Annas) likewise leave the show’s creators vulnerable to charges of antisemitism, however unintentional.
Nicholas Hambruch as a black leather-jacketed Pilate is alternately worried (because of his forecasting dream) and peeved at Jesus’ passivity. Actors, Hambruch included, occasionally don classical statuary masks to indicate they are the occupying Romans. Erich W. Schleck plays their Jewish puppet King Herod as a slimy sybarite. Unmoved by Jesus’ dilemma, Herod sings a song that perfectly typifies those who are fat, happy and totally indifferent to the suffering of others. He wants miracles on demand to be kept as trophies.
In an article about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” I once wrote “one tends to see … what one’s religious background has prepared one to see.” The same is surely true for those seeing this show.
God or man? And how are we to “love him” and one another in either guise?
Our collective unwillingness to grapple with these questions causes me to tremble. Let’s hope that we have a lot more time before the real Second Coming.
Page Laws is dean emerita of the Nusbaum Honors College at Norfolk State University. email@example.com