Jesus Christ Superstar
This year, Sacramento audiences could choose between two versions of Jesus Christ’s last seven days on Earth. First, we had Mel Gibson’s graphic, violent vision found in his controversial movie The Passion of the Christ (released last spring and available on DVD this week).
Perhaps banking on the interest generated by the movie, no fewer than three local theaters produced the feel-good musical Jesus Christ Superstar this year. There was the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s offering in January, followed by a production from Garbeau’s Dinner Theater in the spring. And now the Music Circus is closing its summer season with yet another production of the story of Jesus’ death.
You couldn’t get two more different takes on the events leading up to and including Christ’s crucifixion than Passion and Superstar. Gibson concentrated on the brutality and torments surrounding the events, and Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Superstar gave us Jesus’ peace and love when confronted by the conflicted Judas and his judges. Amazingly enough, both versions created major controversies when they first came out.
It’s hard to imagine recent productions of Jesus Christ Superstar causing a stir, especially this pretty tame production by Music Circus. In fact, by play’s end, you leave the theater wishing for less perfected song-and-dance numbers and more emotion, chemistry and, well, passion.
The 1960s hippie love-in costumes and staging are simple yet handsome, and the familiar songs are satisfying to hear. But there is a strange disconnection between the characters onstage, and between the cast and the audience. Part of the problem is the musical itself. It’s all songs, without any dialogue—which is distancing. And when the lyrics are muffled and in a high vocal range, as with some of the production’s numbers, the story gets lost.
Three of the main characters are presented by strong singer-actors: Charlie Pollock as Judas, Max von Essen as Jesus, and Sophina Brown as Mary Magdalene. Still, they work more as solo performers than as an ensemble. Ironically, the real presence here is embodied by the high priests and Pilate.
However, it’s still satisfying to see the joy and enthusiasm the performers bring to the stage, the affection the audience has for the music and story, and the positive message found in this version of Jesus’ life—not exactly the feelings Passion leaves you with.