Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Jesus Christ Superstar
Looking back 35 years now, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber couldn't possibly have known about The Da Vinci Code or The Book of Judas, could they?
Scott Miller's new production of the Rice and Webber rock opera captures all of the rebelliousness and swagger of 1971 (when the show first opened), though in 2006, it might play better as a rebellion against pure celebrity. Most of the time, the beautifully modulated cast resembles a pubescent peace rally rather than seekers of God, which makes this Superstar a fine reflection of its time. The first big number, "What's The Buzz" is a justifiably confident love-in. And Miller's elegant staging and the excellent chorus work give it a rough beauty and a powerful passion, especially in act two.
The show still manages to shock, as when Jesus (John Sparger) licks the fingers of Mary Magdalene, putting New Line in competition with your local Cineplex this month. It also benefits from two strong male leads, though the book doesn't give them what you would call a real relationship on stage. Mr. Sparger alternates the role of savior with Khnemu Menu-Ra (who played the swinging, tormented black Judas at this performance). Both men do very well: Mr. Sparger has a soft woody voice and long curling hair which tosses violently during the "lashings"; and Mr. Menu-Ra stylishly taunts Jesus in the title number, his voice showing bottomless reserves of torment. The lyrics Judas sings (suggesting he helped rather than betrayed Jesus) become surprisingly topical after recent attempts to add a new book to the New Testament.
Kimi Short is perfect as the Mary of the piece, slinking and slouching her way into the beginning of "I Don't Know How To Love Him" and gently tending to Jesus as the pressures build on all sides. Her singing and her adoration are excellent. Robin Michelle-Berger provides some very entertaining go-go choreography, and Miller has arranged a beautiful chorus of voices on and off stage to evoke passion for this Christ.
Charles Glenn provides a Herod that's both funny and frightening. His eyes blaze horrifically when he mocks Jesus, and then his whole 300-pound frame turns jaunty, as when he asks Mr. Sparger (or Mr. Menu-Ra, on alternating weekends) to "walk across his swimming pool." Christopher "Zany" Clark shows a beautiful inner-conflict as Pilate, and Kevin Collier is good as the basso Caiaphas. But Aaron Allen nearly outshines both of them in the smaller role of Annas, with just the right smirk and sneer and a perfect ease sidling up to Judas to convince him to betray Jesus.
Ms. Short, along with Adam Leong (as Peter) help make act two an outstanding closer when they ask "Could We Start Again Please?" And Mr. Sparger shows excellent torment when the apostles are asleep on the eve of his sacrifice.
The six-man band headed by Chris Petersen provides very good back-up, and it's about twice the size of what I'd expected. The addition of Robin Michelle-Berger as choreographer is a great step forward, too. That said, if I ever win the lottery, I suppose I would give New Line Theater about $50,000 to buy additional lighting instruments (and maybe another $20,000 for nicer body mics). But certain compromises will usually be necessary some 2,000 miles "off-Broadway." And viewed as an historical document, from the cornfields of the Bible Belt, this particular passion play comes down to us looking a bit like Peter Pan, though even in that context, it still lacks Tinkerbelle's little Fresnel to stand in for God. Such were the times, in 1971.
Jesus Christ Superstar continues through June 24, 2006. For information, go to www.newlinetheatre.com. New Line's 16th Season will open October 12th with a world premiere by Scott Miller, Johnny Appleweed.
Art by Matt Reedy