Regional Reviews: Wisconsin, SE
Jesus Christ SuperstarNational Tour
Jesus Christ Superstar, whose 50th Anniversary tour is now performing at Overture Center, covers the last weeks of Jesus' life, starting roughly with Palm Sunday.
Judas Iscariot (Elvie Ellis), the apostle you love to hate, has the biggest role, even bigger than Jesus (Jack Hopewell). The voice of reason, he asks why Jesus keeps pushing the God business–when they started out, Jesus was just a man. Of course, since Jesus is the Son of God, no one expects to get inside his head and report things from his point of view. But Judas wants to be his right-hand man, and he wants worldly success for the Jesus organization, presumably because it will give Judas power.
Judas certainly doesn't want to go head-to-head with the religious powers that be: the high priest of Israel, Caiaphas (Isaac Ryckeghem); Pontius Pilate (Nicholas Hambruch) of Rome; or Herod (Erich W. Schleck), king of Judea. As a result of these conflicting external forces, if not because of ancient prophecy, Jesus will end up nailed to the cross and dying in a manner generally accepted as one of the worst thought up by historical peoples.
On Jesus' other shoulder sits Mary Magdalene (Faith Jones), a (former) whore with a heart of gold. She just wants to make Jesus feel comfortable, though not necessarily in bed, though the dialog is highly suggestive. While Judas can't comprehend Jesus' heavenly inclinations, Mary locks in on the needs of the real man. Judas thinks it a waste of precious organization funds to put expensive ointment on Jesus' feet and hair; Mary thinks it will help soothe Him, and Jesus thinks that they can't stop poverty alone, so wasting a little ointment won't hurt.
The three-way argument among Mary, Judas, and Jesus is compactly expressed in the song "Everything's Alright."
Caiaphas is the first to broach crucifixion ("This Jesus Must Die," in a captivatingly deep bass) in a sinister chorus line with his acolytes, who carry mic stands they use to sing with. It becomes clear that Jesus is caught up in forces not necessarily beyond his control, but that he chooses to let destroy him. Jesus is passed on to Pilate, played in brutish leather, and glittery Herod, who wears the most flamboyant costume.
Simon Zealotes (not to be confused with Simon Peter) tries to tempt Jesus with the vision of 50,000 Jews ready to follow him and fight back the Romans. Jesus refutes him with the enigmatic short song "Poor Jerusalem": "Neither you, Simon, nor the fifty thousand ... Understand at all ... To conquer death, you only have to die."
It's clear that this is a secular story, as it offers no understanding of why Jesus has to die: traditional Christian doctrine says that God offers his only son as a sacrifice to take on our sins and give us eternal life, but that doctrine isn't offered to the audience or its paradoxes even partly explained. Jesus is a closed book; he suffers because he must and turns away in sorrow from his followers and persecutors alike.
There are many fine moments in the staging. Perhaps the most eye-popping is Christ's whipping. A lithe actress lays it on with verve, with vivid sound effects that make it almost visceral. For awhile it looks as though the whip is making sparks fly. Then it becomes apparent that the sparks are the whip–that instead of whipping Jesus, she is throwing glitter at him, and the imagination is making up the rest. This is to be expected from poor theater, perhaps Off-Off-Broadway, not from a hit Broadway tour.
The vigorous choreography (Drew McOnie) is sharp and vivid. In this non-Equity cast, the ensemble, variously representing priests, Jewish citizens, and Roman soldiers (with white masks like Roman sculpture) wriggles and writhes with energy. Could there ever be a low-energy Superstar? Sure, but this isn't it.
The overall costume design (Tom Scutt) mixes grays and earth tones. Kind of drab, it certainly highlights the spectacular (in gold) costume of Herod, whose number "King Herod's Song" is the pivot on which the story turns: Herod offers Jesus life if he will perform a miracle on the spot, like turning water into wine or walking across his swimming pool. Jesus, apparently willing to perform miracles at other times, doesn't take the bait, but instead submits to the conveyor belt of fate. Schleck's interpretation of Herod sinks into meanness and Evil ("Get out, you King of the Jews ... Get out of my life. ")
The set (Tom Scutt) comprises a large horizontal cross centerstage, with risers stage right (audience left) leading to a procession of crosses across the stage. Musicians occupy what look like china cabinets stage left (audience right). Judas hangs himself in remorse from a bar upstage right in the only disappointing piece of staging: He drops a rope off the set and freezes. Sure, it's hard to hang a real actor every night, especially one as important to the story as Judas, but surely something more could be done to simulate Judas' demise, perhaps in silhouette or on video.
The lighting (Lee Curran) uses columns of LEDs centerstage to alternate light on either side, with occasional intense moving spotlights that shine on the stage and into the house, creating a spectacular effect. The overall effect is of a dim, writhing mass of humanity struggling to be free, visited by an introspective savior who sadly must move on.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs through February 26, 2023, at Overture Hall, Overture Center, 201 State St., Madison WI. For tickets and information, call 608-258-4141 or visit Overture.org. For more information on the tour, visit ustour.jesuschristsuperstar.com.
Annas: Kodiak Thompson
Orchestra: Music Director, Keyboard I, Mark Binns; Assistant Music Director, Keyboard II, Ryan Wise; Reggie Powe, Isaac Helgestad, Jimmy Bonaparte-Coggins
Electronic Music Design: Mediomatic, LLC Ethan Deppe