Saturday, June 6, 2015

"Did you think your messy death would be a record-breaker?": 'Jesus Christ Superstar' hits middle age in stride in BOBDIREX production

Name recognition alone helps ensure a long life for "Jesus Christ Superstar," the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice 1970 rock opera. The creators built on the gospel story of Jesus' final week, bringing the conflicts to the fore, skirting the theological issues in order to focus on the human drama — internal and external pressures coming to bear upon a charismatic healer and preacher. They dressed it up shrewdly in the lyricism and plugged-in energy derived from "British Invasion" rock's first decade.
Judas meets Jesus in the garden in "Jesus Christ Superstar."

A production putting forth a claim for  the show's viability opened Friday night at the Marian University Theater, the new home for BOBDIREX shows formerly housed at the Athenaeum downtown. It was there that such productions as "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Spamalot," and "Hair" established the BOBDIREX brand: lively, sprawling, effervescent ensemble theater with some glory in the main roles. The atmosphere that director Bob Harbin creates resembles what might happen if a highly successful commune — a utopian community in its initial flourishing, before the inevitable discord and fragmentation — decided to put on a show.

In "Jesus Christ Superstar," Harbin's canny movement of his cast folds seamlessly into Kenny Shepard's choreography.  The excitement around the central figure ("What's the Buzz?"), the Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem ("Hosanna"), the profane business in a crowded holy place ("The Temple") — these first-act numbers are at the pinnacle of the show's characteristic bursting energy.

It would not be a BOBDIREX production without some excess, however. I'm not sure that Jesus' "den of thieves" accusation before he clears the temple of moneychangers and other traders should have a pansexual brothel as a setting. But these players throw themselves into erotic posturing as readily as they do into their "hosannas" and the crowd's eventual disdain for the troublemaking preacher.

The settings — metal scaffolding and rolling staircases — moved about and settled into place almost as smoothly as their human occupants. The costuming, a provocative blend of steampunk (especially for Pontius Pilate) and first-century-Palestine robes, sandals, and tchoctchkes, suits the notion that Jesus was both luckily and unluckily placed amid the flotsam and jetsam of humanity. The hard-working orchestra and singers were under the solid control of music director Trevor Fanning.

Patrick Clements, tall, blond and white-robed, properly represented the cliche Sunday-school image of Christ. I think that visual cliche suits the show's self-consciousness about the issues of fame, image, and reputation. In the digital age, all that kind of thing has, well, gone viral, and not just for superstars. His singing was both plaintive and commanding, as called for by the occasion. The second-act solo showcase, "Gethsemane," came off stunningly.

Judas Iscariot: A man with a guitar and a dream (gone wrong).
Lloyd Webber and Rice make a big deal out of Judas Iscariot. The role gives a bipolar focus to the show (a device that served them well later with Che Guevara in "Evita"). Judas is explicitly framed as Jesus' right-hand man and one whose long simmering betrayal is depicted as anguished at every step. Joe Doyel played the role to the hilt. Both in the gospels and in this show, I find Judas a shallow character, but maybe traitors always seem shallow.

Gesturally, Doyel made too much of pointing his forefinger at the priests in "Damned for All Time," but otherwise he freshly inhabited the role, projecting the character's  emotional torture movingly throughout. Harbin insightfully invested Judas' relationship to Jesus with physical signs of affection that seem quite fitting.

The legendary status of Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute is a major feature of the show, and Julia Perillo was consistently clear and affecting in the role, especially in the ballad showcase, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," as well as in the duet with Peter (Tim Hunt) "Start Again Please." Another fine solo turn on the "good guys" side was Ramon Hutchins' impassioned cheerleading solo as the apostle Simon, shouting about "the power and the glory" that were to be Jesus' only after the crucifixion.

Michael Lasley lent his glowering basso well (apart from some apparent amplification problems) as Caiaphas, seconded in his pursuit of Jesus by Josiah R. McCruiston.  In the more flamboyant supporting roles, Ty Stover moved convincingly from an above-the-battle Pontius Pilate to an official desperate to be free of his No. 1 problem. And the show's most explicit parody-song, Herod's taunting of Jesus, was splendidly outsized (and just "out") in Danny Kingston's performance, backed up with symmetrical flair by the company.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" has staying power despite its capacity for giving Christians and non-Christians alike problems with its conception of one of the world's most famous stories.

This production has coincidentally lent some extra oomph to a lay sermon I will deliver Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis, 615 W. 43rd Street, titled "Who Do Men Say I Am?": A  Humanist Looks at the Humanity of Jesus. All are welcome to attend; service starts at 10:30 a.m.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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