What is exciting and shocking about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar is that it is, a few Brechtian flourishes aside, quite clearly set in 1st-century Palestine. Rock music emerging from the mouths of late antiquity.
That is cool. That is shocking. That shows us something new about “the greatest story ever told.”
And here we find the essential problem with the 50th anniversary tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, which recently played a return engagement at the Belk Theater in Uptown: When you decontextualize a narrative you have to do the next bit, the part where you recontextualize it. Otherwise you don’t have anything to hold on to; you have only elements, arbitrary aesthetics floating in the void.
This production thinks that the important part of the title is Superstar, while I’d argue that it’s the proper name Jesus Christ that gives the piece its heart, the narrative its thrust and the concept its teeth. I say this as someone with an admiring view of the historical-mythic figure of Jesus and an adversarial relationship to the Christian church.
OK, maybe I am guilty of having a religious ax to grind; one of my core issues with this production is that it isn’t heretical enough. There is plenty of material in the script to explore the dynamics of cults, as well as the emergence and co-opting of underground movements — not to mention the delicious love triangle of Jesus, Mary and Judas.
Any production of Jesus Christ Superstar worth its salt is going to clearly implicate these three in an erotic psychodrama. It’s central to the story.
But alas, director Timothy Sheader sacrifices story for sound and sacrifices sound for speed. I will admit that the opening moments of the show are among the best I’ve spent in a theater. The lights go down and then a rattling and loud bass hum rolls through the audience. You feel it in your guts. Then the eerie psychedelia of the opening riff cuts through the bass and rapturously you think “Oh Holy SHIT. It. Is. On.”
But alas, then the rest of the show follows and you realize that what could be staged as a revolutionary reclaiming of the kingdom of god is instead being presented as a bizarre concert/dance experience played at double-time and seems mostly to be about a Kelvin Gemstone figure (minus any charisma) and his gang of Yeezy-wearing jazzercizers battling the drag queens of Likud and a dyspeptic roman Meatloaf.
Granted there is fine dancing and marvelous voices and even some startling and effective visuals thrown in there — I’m thinking specifically of the marvelous Elvie Ellis as Judas, whose hands and wrists are dyed silver after he betrays Christ.
But generally the images in this imagistic production range from the half-baked (Judas doesn’t hang himself but rather hangs his microphone?) to the nonsensical (a whole chorus of beheaded John the Baptists attend to Herod … and their hands are also severed heads for some reason?).
I was talking with a friend recently about legendary queer Persian theatre director Reza Abdoh, peace be upon him, about the rabid facility and kaleidoscopic imagination with which he applied the effects and techniques of the historical avant garde to create overwhelming works of total theater.
My friend replied, “Some people should never be exposed to his work. They will be inspired to make such bad theatre.”
We had a laugh about it, but it’s a fair point. Abdoh’s theatre was monumental and effective because it is grounded in a personal vision and a good nose for narrative. It also helped that Abdoh’s company, Dar A Luz, was a notoriously close-knit group of immensely talented performers who were fanatically devoted to executing their director’s vision.
In many ways this production feels like another example of the Avant Garde™-to-mainstream pipeline, where we get Broadway or touring productions built from experimental theatre techniques stuck together without much care or attention offered to the why of it all.
There is the frantic choreography, the fixation and focus on technology and how it mediates human expression, and the liberal application of pastiche. What there is very little of is attention paid to the central relationships of the story, or really to any aspect of the story at all. And our experience suffers for it.
Andrew Lloyd Webber is far from my favorite maker of musicals, but I have to give him his due for Jesus Christ Superstar, which is a lot of things to a lot of people, but which is not intended to be a warmed-over knock off of American Idol. It is a reevaluation of a myth that has, for better or worse, been the primary force shaping western culture for the last 2,000 years.
For a production that takes itself very, very seriously, one wishes they would have taken a page from their own book and approached the story of the historical Jesus with a little more investment of sincerity and passion.
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