Resurrecting a rock opera

The current revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a sort of fourth coming for me. I’ve seen three previous productions of the classic rock opera featuring music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice — starting as a tween who first fell in love with the concept album, then saw a touring production of the show many years later in California.

For a time, I lived and died by the record that felt like my generation’s version of Green Day’s “American Idiot.” Listening to the double album, with its mottled dirt-colored cover and gold logo depicting a pair of angels, felt like an act of supreme rebellion. I remember opening the folded album cover atop my bed, pouring over the matching booklet and kneeling nearly prayer-like on the floor while singing along to songs like “What’s the Buzz?” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”

My daughter Lizabeth, who performs this weekend in the Pace Performing Arts production of “Our Lady of 121st Street” at the Lion Theatre on NYC’s famed 42nd Street, has joined me for two national touring productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar” performed at ASU Gammage in Tempe.

She admits to being too young to truly understand “Jesus Christ Superstar” the first time around, but I remember thinking at the time that I wanted her to experience the music that’d meant so much to me during a similar age and stage. Some things — like Springsteen concerts and favorite Broadway musicals — are important to share with our children along the journey.

During my last trip to NYC, we saw a preview of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” directed by Des McAnuff (think “Jersey Boys“) — which has since officially opened at the Neil Simon Theatre. Lizabeth shared after the show that it was the first time she really understood the full measure of the story, based loosely on the last seven days of Jesus’ life.

Though some see blasphemy in the musical’s broad strokes, it’s clearly educating a whole new generation about geopolitical and religious issues of Jesus’ day. For kids not raised with Bible in hand, it’s as close as they may ever come to considering Jesus’ life and times — to witnessing a work within the “passion play” tradition.

Those who’ve suggested the current revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a tad over the top may have preferred tamer takes featuring Ted Neely as Jesus — but we’re not among them. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival production –performed at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego before heading to Broadway — is bolder by far, and much better for it. I loved “The Book of Mormon,” but can’t say that I adore “Jesus Christ Superstar” any less. God has been good to Broadway of late.

I spent much of “Jesus Christ Superstar” fighting the urge to get up and dance. Nobody wants their mom to have the musical theater equivalent of a “come to Jesus” moment in public, so I settled for a swift bit of toe-tapping and a silent sing-along in my head. This resurrection of “Superstar” is fresh, fabulous and fun. No apologies needed.

The “Jesus Christ Superstar” cast includes Paul Nolan (Jesus), Josh Young (Judas), Chilina Kennedy (Mary Magdalene), Tom Hewitt (Pontius Pilate) and Bruce Dow (King Herod). Also Marcus Nance (Caiaphas) and Aaron Walpole (Annas). Nick Cartell (Jonah/Swing) grew up in Arizona, where he performed with Valley Youth Theatre, Phoenix Theatre and more. Liz tells me he’s already rocked the role of Judas in understudy mode.

The creative team includes Andrew Lloyd Webber (composer), Tim Rice (lyricist), Des McAnuff (director), Lisa Shriver (choreographer), Rick Fox (music director), Robert Brill (set design), Paul Tazewell (costume design) and Howell Binkley (lighting design). Also Steve Canyon Kennedy (sound design), Sean Nieuwenhuis (video design), Daniel Levinson (fight director), Simon Fox (stunt coordinator) and John Miller (music coordinator).

It’s about time we had a “Superstar” laced with sensitivity and sass. Think sets featuring tall metal bleachers and a giant ticker counting down Jesus’ final days. Costumes in lush fabrics saturated with rich color or earthy materials muted with feminizing tones. Choreography with tent-revival fervor. And layers of glorious orchestration with a hint of folk fare. All bring modern scale to an ancient tale — making “Jesus Christ Superstar” a resurrection well worth the wait.

– Lynn

Coming up: “Rock of Ages” on Valley stages

Photos courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

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One response to “Resurrecting a rock opera

  1. The thing about that double album is people look at you funny when you find yourself going through the day singing “Jesus must die” under your breath.

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