Rockin' Messiah

Disciples and tormentors kick out the jams in Jesus Christ Superstar.

Jesus Christ Superstar Palace Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue Through April 25; 216-241-6000
The bad guys wear black: The mix of costume styles - adds humor to a dynamic production.
The bad guys wear black: The mix of costume styles adds humor to a dynamic production.
Oh, how far we've come from the Age of Aquarius and the Summer of Love. Back in the late 1960s and early '70s, hippies were happily stuffing daisies into the muzzles of national guard firearms, young people pleaded, "Make love, not war," and Jesus Christ Superstar hit Broadway with a gauzy, emotional, rock-concert version of Jesus's final days on earth. Flash forward to today, when ex-hippies are now CEOs stuffing their bank accounts with suspicious stock options, young people are begging to become Donald Trump's next well-salaried ass-kisser, and the revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's first major hit features some of Christ's disciples dressed in trendy camouflage outfits and bad guys decked out in leather Nazi drag with Roman warrior breastplates. Clearly, this isn't your pot-addled father's JCS.

In an attempt to capture the aggressive urban vibe of the new century, director Kevin Moriarty has brought to Playhouse Square a production that swaps simplicity for sizzle and replaces homespun faith with flash, smoke, and cacophony. Oddly, amid all this muscular tumult is the gentle, slim, and long-haired Jesus -- he hasn't been pumped up on steroids like the vengeful messiah now making the rounds in the Left Behind series of novels. As a result, Christ comes off a bit wimpy and overmatched in this new context, which gives even greater contrast to his fragile message.

But Sunday-school lessons aside, if you like your rock music loud, brash, and pulsating -- and your lyrics frequently unintelligible -- this is the show for you. Tracing the last days of Jesus, from his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday until his crucifixion, we see our Man agitate for better treatment of the poor and disenfranchised, as government functionaries and religious officials plot his extermination. Of course, this is exactly what would happen right now to any charismatic figure who espoused such radical ideas in these days of rampant "me-firstism," which makes this revival particularly timely.

Romping, leaping, and climbing all over Peter J. Davison's impressive set, anchored by twin columns with a catwalk running through them, the talented cast nails Webber's tunes and Tim Rice's thoughtful (when you can make them out) lyrics. Lawrence Clayton as Judas displays stunning rhythm-and-blues pipes as he solos in "Heaven on Their Minds," and he's wrenchingly effective as the torment of his betrayal disintegrates him, body and soul. As Jesus, Eric Kunze certainly looks the part and, while his voice is thinner than some of the others, he still manages to evoke the essence of this enthralling leader.

But some of the most sterling moments are delivered by secondary players in wonderfully staged set pieces. The evil Caiaphas makes his presence known with a deep rumbling from the unbelievably basso profundo larynx of bald and imposing Lawson Skala, who leads his fellow priests in the bloodthirsty ditty "This Jesus Must Die." He is supported by the yippy-terrier priest Annas, played with ankle-chewing ferocity by Jeffrey Polk.

There are two show-stoppers. Natalie Toro as Mary Magdalene is suffused with confusion and tender love in "I Don't Know How to Love Him." And, due largely to its most welcome humorous digression, "King Herod's Song" soars as a cheesy lounge-act parody, featuring the comical crooner-regent and his sequin-gowned backups. This interlude is the only thing Barry Dennen (Herod) does in the show, but he damn near walks off with the whole proceedings, milking every laugh from his musical mock-interrogation of Jesus. Another terrific song-scene is "The Temple," in which the moneylenders are driven away underneath a galaxy of flashing stock-market tickers.

Although the original JCS offered up an abstract, soft-focus crucifixion scene, this revival is similar to Mel Gibson's interpretation of Christ-as-Mr.-Bill; the suffering is much more literal -- from the 40 lashes handed out by the bloody-handed crowd to the final trudging walk with the cross to Golgotha. This agonizing journey is punctuated by the famous tune "Superstar," performed by Judas Iscariot and Dawn (three lissome lasses in red catsuits and high heels). Adding to the evening's impact are the costumes designed by Roger Kirk, a free-flowing blend of contemporary garb (some citizens are dressed in black business suits and fedoras) and ancient raiment (the nefarious priests wear floor-length robes and glide like ominous shadows). Mark McCullough's lighting drenches the graffiti-filled back wall with throbbing colors to differentiate scene changes and to augment the sinewy texture of director Moriarty's vision.

In these threatening times, many interest groups are trying to craft Jesus in their own image. So it's refreshing to revisit the core of his teachings: fighting for the less fortunate and demonstrating that the route to God's grace is based on selfless acts, not selfish obsessions. Those are great thoughts, no matter how they're delivered.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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