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Theater Review: “Superstar” cast makes the songs their own

“Jesus Christ Superstar” was the first show I did after college as well as the first show I ever saw on stage in Duluth when UMD did it as a post-apocalyptic passion play several decades ago. I had a student teacher in high school who actually played us the original concept album in class when it came out, which led me to buy the record and listen to it until every last note was firmly ingrained in my brain. To this day I remember exactly how I am supposed to sing each ensemble number. So you can appreciate that watching the Playhouse production directed by Dorothy Danner that opened Thursday night, was a bit surreal for me.

I do not know how much of it comes from alterations made for one of the show's subsequent revivals versus how much of the credit goes to vocal director Andy Kust and his work with the cast, but far and away the greatest strength of this production is how the singers find new ways to sing these familiar songs. This reflects the admonition given to singers time and time again these days on "American Idol" and "The Voice" of making a song your own, which I have to tell you is not something you see that often in the realms of musical theater or opera, and certainly never to this extent. The vocal pyrotechnics fall short of being stratospheric, but that is not where these singers are trying to score points, and song after song that is exactly what they accomplish in this show.

Every single song in this show is being sung in a way you have never heard before. It starts when Evan Tyler Wilson as Judas launches into “Heaven on Their Minds,” and by the time Adam Sippola’s Jesus sings “Poor Jerusalem,” it becomes clear this approach is the rule and not the exception in this production. I would bet many an audience member was surprised at what song they were unexpectedly humming on their way home (for me it was “Could We Start Again Please?” because I was captivated by what Sara Wabrowetz’s Mary Magdalene was doing with the melody on the title phrase).

Wilson's best moment as Judas comes in the last half of "Judas' Death," with its powerful reprise of "I Don't Know How to Love Him." But his most memorable turn certainly comes when he shows up as a lounge singer from hell for the title tune, surrounded by biker chicks and the original hell's angels. Then Danner brings both Judas and the audience back to harsh reality with the echoing sound of the hammers nailing Jesus to the cross. “Superstar” is indeed a rock opera, but at its heart it remains a traditional passion play, which both Danner’s staging and Sippola’s performance forcefully drive home.

I never thought that Rice and Webber’s stated intention of humanizing Jesus automatically translated into making Jesus human rather that divine, but clearly the show privileges Judas as the main character. This time around, however, Jesus takes it back in the endgame, in no small part due to Sippola, who frankly cuts a more charismatic figure as Jesus than most singers I have seen play the role. His "Poor Jerusalem" rejoinder to Simon is one of the show's most powerful moments, as are his "Gethsemane" and the "Crucifixion" scene. Sippola's ability to sing in character and establish a rapport with others on stage has always been one of his strong suits and if Danner suddenly clicked her heels three times and said this was no longer a musical, he would still make an effective Jesus. 

As Caiaphas, Gabe Mayfield shows how low he can go singing bass, while David Greenberg finally provides a singer who can handle the vocals of Annas in the sweet zone of his voice instead of being stuck in a falsetto. Calland Metts as Pilate showcases his ability to actually sing most of his songs, long after most performers downshift to dramatic shouting. But if you think I am going to spoil the surprise as to what Danner came up with to stage Jeffrey Madison's show stopping "King Herod's Song," all I can say is, no, you're wrong, you're very wrong now.

At seven pieces this is the smallest orchestra I have seen for this musical, which means a keyboard replacing the strings and the like. Fortunately, they were relatively few moments where the required full rock opera sound was noticeably lacking (I really want the "Superstar" theme to fill the auditorium when Pilate condemns Jesus to death). Major props to Matthew Smith for his work as a percussionist, getting that whip to snap on the right beat thirty-nine times during the "Trial by Pilate," because that is by no means an easy task.

At first glance, Curtis Phillips's scenic design looks like the set for the rumble under the highway in "West Side Story," constructed of a mix of concrete and metal, covered in political graffiti of a most contemporary nature, and extending all the way to the back wall of the theater. When Peter shows up with his switchblade that "West Side Story" vibe is even stronger and Judas really starts looking like the voice of reason among the apostles. 

There are some projections on the side walls of the theatre setting the scenes, but they were pretty superfluous as far as I was concerned. I mostly forgot about them, and I suspect most people who know "Superstar" from start to finish will do so as well. But since Webber and Rice’s songs fade out (like a record) rather than actually end (like a real musical), directors have to come up with ways of making the transitions work.

"Simon Zealotes" is really the only true dance number in the show, and Paige Kohler's choreography involves a lot of stomping and clapping to help drive the rhythm. For the most part the costumes for Jesus and his followers strike me as more circa 1970, when the original concept album came out, than reflecting current fashions, while the Jewish authorities and Roman troops are decked out in black, a look that manages to be both ancient and futuristic at the same time. The title song is when the work costume designer Peg Ferguson and her crew came up with really stands out in this show.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” has held up well over the decades. The most notable bone of contention with the show these days would be its outdated portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute, challenged by the popularity of "The DaVinci Code" more than the revisionist work of Biblical scholars, but rather crucial for Wabrowetz's "I Don't Know How to Love Him" as an anthem to the idea of a higher form of love.

The attempt to deal with the motivations of Judas in his great act of betrayal, strikes me as still relevant and worth exploring. Luke declares that Satan entered Judas while John argues that Judas was bribed, and Matthew tells how Judas committed suicide. Reconciling those disparate versions requires filling in the gaps. Rice, working from the perspective of the 1960s, makes Judas a social revolutionary rather than a political one, a point most explicitly made in Judas’s outburst in “Everything’s Alright.” The overture establishes the present times as mirroring those of Jesus, which serves to argue the relevance of the story today. Then again, part of the power of the story is that its message is eternally relevant.

The most provocative aspect of this production is having Pascal Pastrana play both Simon Zealotes and Peter. On the one hand the song "Simon Zealotes," urging Jesus to lead his followers into battle against the Romans, goes well beyond what we know of Peter's theological beliefs from the Gospels. In Matthew, Peter becomes the rock on which Jesus would build his church because when Jesus asks his disciples "Who do you say that I am?" it is Peter alone who answers, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." But on the other hand, there is nothing in "Jesus Christ Superstar" making palatable the irony that Peter, the first to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, would also be the first to deny him. Danner manifests that irony by having Pastrana sing "Simon Zealotes" as Peter.

There were some aspects of the production that definitely reminded me of the film version of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” but I was struck more by elements eerily reminiscent of the 1937 Mercury Theatre production of “Julius Caesar” put together by Orson Welles and John Houseman, particular in the way Danner staged the endings of “Damned for All Times” and “Judas’ Death.”

The "John 19:41" denouement actually stops short of depicting the verse, which simply states that near the crucifixion there was a garden with a new tomb that had never been used. Against the music, which is basically a grander version of the end of "Gethsemane," Danner plays out the descent from the cross--with Peter being the one who carries Jesus--and fades out on a pietà tableau, with Judas looking on from the shadows. I always thought the piece was more powerful when you recalled what Jesus was singing earlier, rather than recalling the specific verse from scripture.

If you go

  • What:  "Jesus Christ Superstar" by Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice
  • Where:  Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan St.
  • When:   7:30 tonight and Saturday, April 22-25, and April 29-May 2; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 25-26, May 2-3
  • Tickets:  $25 for adults, $15 for youth/students
  • For information: (218) 733-7555 or duluthplayhouse.org
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