So it is with historical artifacts and history itself; they're always open to reinterpretation. And one of the signal plays of our time is the 1971 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, which reimagined the last week in the life of a very important fellow. Marrying the sacred and the profane, the complex music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's lean and witty lyrics have the power to engage. And this production at the Porthouse Theatre, while short of perfect, still manages to captivate, by sketching, once again, the portrait of the doomed savior as an achingly mortal man.
Funneling the familiar story of Jesus' last days through a pop-rock idiom, the authors managed to create a good bit of controversy when the musical first opened. By fashioning a Jesus who is apprehensive and unsure of himself, and then leaving out the resurrection, they drew the wrath of many religious groups, which considered the work a blasphemy.
Although the play is certainly about Jesus, it's told from the point of view of Judas, the man who betrayed the "King of the Jews" and thereby set in motion the flowering of Christianity. Judas starts by advising Jesus in "Heaven on Their Minds" about the dangerous path he is treading: "They think they've found the new Messiah/And they'll hurt you when they find they're wrong." And then, just before the crucifixion, Judas asks the puzzler that anchors the title song: "Jesus Christ, superstar, do you think you're what they say you are?"
Of course, the old quarrels have faded, and now Superstar is a familiar theatrical staple, even for high schools and community theaters. Under the direction of Terri Kent, this straightforward production happily avoids some of the excesses of previous renditions (a cross lit up like a Las Vegas marquee comes to mind), but the players vary in their ability to deliver the full impact of the show's score.
In the role of Jesus, Will North Cleckler has a serviceable tenor and a look of humble bafflement most of the time -- which is appropriate, in light of the thrust of the story. While Steel Burkhardt as Judas (decked out in leather jacket and a fairly constant scowl) has the brooding good looks to front a boy band, his voice sounds tired, and he doesn't bring the cut-loose rock vibe that the songs demand. Burkhardt also misses many of the smaller nuances of the tortured Judas that should give the play much of its thematic resonance.
Meg Cavanaugh as Mary does a fine job with the most famous song, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," conveying a simple honesty that makes those familiar lyrics fresh all over again. Also excellent are William Clarence Marshall as the nefarious Caiaphas and Stephen Brockway as Simon, handling their singing chores with spot-on precision.
Director Kent creates some memorable vignettes, with the assistance of choreography by MaryAnn Black. During "Hosanna," as Jesus and his followers arrive in Jerusalem, the exuberant crowd scene is nicely detailed and tellingly demonstrates JC's unstoppable popularity. Also, the comical "King Herod's Song," although stylistically an odd fit, is amusing, as Eric van Baars vamps with backup singers through a mocking musical challenge to the big guy: "Prove to me that you're no fool/Walk across my swimming pool." But the first act finale (when Judas actually betrays Jesus in return for a bag of gold) lacks emotional punch, since we never feel the tug of Judas' inner turmoil.
Lloyd Webber's soaring music (which mixes standard guitar riffs with more intricate rhythms) keeps the pace of this dialogue-less piece clipping along. And the small Porthouse orchestra, conducted by Melissa Fucci, does what it can with three keyboards, a guitar, bass, and drums. But since they are hidden behind the set, the music never has the presence necessary to stand out as it should.
Even though the crucifixion lacks the homoerotic S&M gloss of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Kent manages to imbue the moment with suitable suffering, as the crowd takes turns smacking Jesus during the 39 lashes that precede the final scene. The glory of this show lies in the authors' unquenchable desire to prod and poke at the conventional opinion of Jesus' identity. Even in the quiet interlude "Everything's Alright," when Mary is soothing a troubled Jesus, Judas is in the background, accusing her of wasting resources that could have gone to the poor. This is heady and invigorating stuff. And always worth another look.