Christ in the 21st century: Chico Cabaret takes on Jesus Christ Superstar
Community theaters are often faced with challenges inherent to staging what has already been presented as an epic, big-screen spectacular.
Saturday night’s performance of Jesus Christ Superstar left no doubt that Chico Cabaret has conquered this ambitious musical, which is equal parts rock concert, compelling drama and biblical odyssey—with contemporary twists.
While telling the scripture-based story of Jesus’ final weeks of life, entirely in song, the production effectively connected all aspects of the tale, from Jesus’ ascent in popularity, to the pangs that resulted as his pack of followers grew too large, to his discontentment and ultimately tragic death.
Born to artistic parents Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice in 1970, Superstar was, along with Tommy and Hair, one of several “rock operas” to populate the pop culture landscape of the day. The album spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, and several tracks from the record received airplay on FM rock radio. A stage production of Superstar ran on Broadway shortly thereafter and a popular film version followed in 1973.
The Cabaret has done a masterful job attracting outstanding local talent for this show, and, to borrow a sports idiom, guiding them to a team victory. As an almost constant onstage presence, the dynamic Allen Lunde tied together the whole biblical tragedy in commanding fashion as the disillusioned and emotionally torn Judas Iscariot. Conflicted between his love and awe of Jesus and his outrage as he watches blissful devotees flock to the uncrowned “king” of the Jews, Lunde was proficient in passionate song as well as unspoken acting.
As Jesus, Andy Hafer evoked the rock-star charisma necessary for the part, and Samantha Francis, as Jesus’ seductress Mary Magdalene, sparkled as she exhibited the best pure voice in the production while maintaining the role’s necessary dramatic mannerisms. Francis was especially captivating as she crooned “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Everything’s Alright.” The entire cast was miked, which helped ensure an overall audio richness.
Superstar contains plenty of 20th-century-flavored lyrics that you certainly won’t find in the Bible. During “The Jesus Must Die,” as Caiaphas ponders how to deal with Jesus’ popularity, he sings, “One thing I’ll say for him: Jesus is cool.”
Throughout the 100-minute production, viewers were kept attentive, thanks to director Sue Ruttenburg’s quick pacing in which the stage went black between scenes while actors swiftly and deftly reassembled. The Romanesque set was unspectacular yet practical, its several entrance points and raised second level providing a perfect venue for the production.
More than once, 20 people were onstage for effective crowd scenes, when peasants sold their wares while singing “The Temple,” and again when the sick and maimed crawled out of the woodwork to beg Jesus to heal them. The stage was also effectively used when Cabaret vet Tony Varicelli, as the flamboyantly dressed, domineering-turned-sympathetic Pontius Pilate, stood at the top of the steps and lyrically berated the submissive Jesus who lied at the floor far below him.
Cabaret artistic director Phil Ruttenburg made the most of his relatively minor role as King Herod, receiving physical devotion from a bevy of fine young maidens, and then cruelly mocking Jesus with Broadway-styled delivery, singing “So, you are the Christ, you’re the great Jesus Christ. Prove to me that you’re divine; change my water into wine.”
Ron Halvorson and Martin Taylor were believable in their roles as Calaphas and Annas, and the soldiers, especially the linebacker-type who laid 39 lashes on Jesus’ back, seemed authentic. In addition, a core group of eight women, along with local third-grader Molly Hafer, were crucial to the show, giving spirited performances in song and dance as devoted followers of Jesus.
The unsung heroes of the production, however, were surely the members of the band, who performed nonstop throughout the two-act show. Jeffrey Childs (keyboards), Tobin Roye (guitar), Kim Gimbal (bass), Komoki Bunting (drums) and Glenn Tucker (keyboards) didn’t miss a beat.