“Fast, intense, exciting” Jesus Christ Superstar
By Philip Pearce
I first encountered Jesus Christ Superstar in the late ’60s or very early ’70s before it ever hit the stage anywhere. I was in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and one of my fellow staff members at a high school summer camp concerned with Christianity and the arts had (don’t ask me how) gotten hold of the pre-production LP. He hauled it out and played it for us at our nightly staff meeting. Eyes popped and jaws dropped. Was all that full-throated shrieking and rock percussion blasphemy or breakthrough? The discussion ate up our planning session and went on deep into the night.
Forty years on, I am convinced that, whatever their respective beliefs, Rice and Lloyd Webber are at least nearer to the shock and terror of the actual Gospel narratives than are most stage or screen presentations of the Passion of Christ. Godspell is a bit too cute. And characters in the DeMille or Zeffirelli films tend to sound like they are speaking from scripts printed in gothic lettering. The crazy crowd adulation and hysteria in Jesus Christ Superstar are also there in scripture; so is the raw inner torment of Jesus in Gethsemane and on the road to his death. And if Tim and Andrew (two nice apostolic first names) have created a detailed conflict with Judas that’s missing in the Bible, they are doing no more than did the free-wheeling, highly pop-cultured mystery plays which once traveled through the streets of medieval English towns on wooden carts, offering a largely illiterate population luridly and often farcically imagined highlights from the Bible.
For most of the cast of PacRep’s current fast, intense and exciting revival of Superstar all the hipster costuming, strobe lighting and sixties atmosphere are items from a theatrical history book. The majority of them are members of the theater’s SoDA (School of Dramatic Arts) which offers theater training to students aged six and upwards. These spirited youngsters take on the roles of the apostles and groupies following Jesus, with older opponents like Caiaphas and the other Jerusalem clergy, Governor Pilate and the puppet King Herod played by mature performers like Stephen Poletti, Stephen Moorer, Nick Kelley and John Daniel. It works well. The oldsters are a grimly fixed circle of menace closing slowly in on the churning vigor and passion of the dedicated but undisciplined young Christian pioneers.
Director Moorer never lets the period pyrotechnics swamp the central story, which comes through, clear and moving in the committed energy of the young cast. Davitt Felder plays Jesus with a calm and humorous strength, yes, but he has a capacity to explode in a very real human (and scriptural: read Mark) rage. Here it’s directed more at Judas and less at the Jerusalem clergy than in the New Testament. In response, Rob Devlin’s Judas is appropriately tormented, conflicted, and passionate.
I liked Tara Marie Lucido’s interpretation of Mary Magdalene, who is too often portrayed as a Renaissance tragedy queen, even after Jesus has cast out her demons. Lucido takes her cue from Rice’s lyrics (“Try not to get worried…”) and offers a smiling, upbeat encourager, profoundly changed if still deeply confused by Jesus. PacRep’s sound system served her badly, however, with a non-functioning mic in Act 1 on February 6, the night I saw the show. After the intermission, she was heard loud and powerful, but her crucial first Act “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” had already been largely swallowed up by Don Dally’s fine five-piece band.
The production continues at 7:30 Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, (that’s presumably p.m., not a.m., as listed in the theater’s web site) and 2 p.m. Sundays through February 23rd.
Photo credit: Avery Yeatman