Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The musical Jesus Christ Superstar has taken many forms, first as a hugely successful album in 1970, followed by various stage versions starting with the Broadway production and concerts in 1971, and then the film version in 1973. Since then, the show has played around the world in many incarnations and even produced a second screen version. The less than satisfactory national tour currently playing at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati is a star-driven vehicle for '80s heavy metal rocker Sebastian Bach, based on the show's 2000 Broadway revival.
Jesus Christ Superstar is a retelling (with a number of liberties taken) of the last week of Jesus' life. The story is told equally from the perspectives of Jesus and Judas, starting just before the disciples' entrance into Jerusalem up through Jesus' crucifixion. This version of the New Testament text attempts neither to confirm nor deny the divinity of Christ. Rather, it focuses on the humanity of Jesus. The character of Judas is written to personify the confusion, doubts, and fears of all of Jesus' followers. To the musical's detriment, the presentation of the story assumes that the audience members know the tale, and few characters are sufficiently introduced. However, a high level of dramatic tension exists throughout to sustain sufficient interest in the piece.
Jesus Christ Superstar was one of the first sung-through, fully conceived book musicals using rock music. The show greatly influenced theater professionals (Les Miserables creators Boublil and Schonberg) and brought many new fans to musical theater (including this writer). The score was by two relative unknowns (at the time), Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics), and contains an effective mix of hard-driving rock tunes and wonderfully soulful ballads, all with a highly theatrical flavor. "Heaven On Their Minds," "Everything's Alright," "I Don't Know How To Love Him," "Gethsemane," and the title number have become classic Broadway numbers of this style.
This touring version of Jesus Christ Superstar is unable to overcome several deficiencies. The first and foremost of these problems is the performance of Sebastian Bach as Jesus. Seldom has a major touring production had such a weak leading performer. Mr. Bach has an extremely powerful voice and performs well for short periods of time. However, any hint of controlled singing is quickly replaced by nasally whines, guttural croaking, or wild vocalizing that was likely much more suitable to Mr. Bach's time leading the heavy metal band Skid Row. Even worse is his acting, or lack thereof. Conviction and character development are jettisoned in favor of the amateurish hand waving as his main acting device.
Mr. Bach's inabilities appear even greater when compared to the skill of his co-stars. Carl Anderson has played the role of Judas on and off for more than thirty years. His soulful, emotional singing and portrayal is still top-notch. If Mr. Anderson overacts slightly at times, it is a minor quibble for an overall captivating performance. Also providing a wonderful turn is Natalie Toro as Mary Magdalene. Ms. Toro was superbly impressive in her last Cincinnati appearance in Everything's Ducky at Playhouse in the Park, and her sweet and potent voice fills the Aronoff Center with ease. Also supplying praiseworthy performances are Stephen Breithaupt (Pilate), Lawson Skala (Caiaphas), James Clow (Peter), and Scott Allgauer (understudy for Herod on opening night).
This production is based on the recent Broadway revival directed by Gale Edwards. The direction for the tour by Kevin Moriarty seems heavy handed and scattered in focus. The choreography by Dana Solimando (based on the Broadway work of Anthony Van Laast) often resembles group dance squad moves but is generally appropriate.
The scenic design by Peter J. Davison consists primarily of a unit set with large Roman columns. Like many productions of Jesus Christ Superstar, there are many modern design elements for this tour. For locales such as King Herod's palace and the temple, these updates work. However, for virtually all other scenes, the sets either distract from the story or don't differentiate enough to provide clear evidence of setting. Roger Kirk's costume design lacks consistency, with most garments looking modern but others appearing ancient (Pilate's wardrobe in "Pilate's Dream") or futuristic (police resembling Darth Vader). The lighting helps to communicate tone and atmosphere as rendered by Mark McCullough.
Jesus Christ Superstar was groundbreaking when it premiered more than thirty years ago, and the piece itself is still moving, thanks to its subject matter and a deliciously vibrant theatrical rock score by Webber and Rice. However, an embarrassingly weak performance by its lead performer and some questionable direction and design choices make this a disappointing production. The show continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through March 2, 2003. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816.