Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2001
Like many people of my respectable middle age, I have a personal attachment to Jesus Christ Superstar born of it being a seminal piece of music from my early adolescence. And yet I had never seen the show staged. I was a fourteen-year-old atheist living in Manhattan when Tom O’Horgan’s controversial 1971 Broadway version opened, and the friends of mine who saw it hated it so much that I never went. In the intervening 30 years I became an adult and a Christian, but this music faded gently from my life. The best I could muster was the occasional chorus of “Hosanna, heysanna, sanna, sanna, ho…” around Palm Sunday, which mystified my two sons.
Last night I took my twelve-year-old son Brandon down to the Mac-Haydn with me to see Jesus Christ Superstar. I was his age when I first heard this music, but there were going to be several big differences in our experiences: 1) Brandon has been raised in the Episcopal Church and has a good knowledge of the Bible whereas I was not raised in any faith tradition and was introduced to the Passion story by this music; 2) It is not 1969; 3) Sir Andrew Lloyd-Weber is now a huge international star and then he was an unknown of 19.
So we went to hear and re-hear. And I went to review. I remembered every word and every note as though I had heard the album yesterday, and yet the experience of seeing and hearing those words and that story come out of the mouths of real people, especially in the intimate space of the Mac-Haydn was startlingly powerful. At the triumphal entry into Jerusalem I burst into tears and found myself weeping frequently during the rest of the evening. Brandon’s first reaction was “Ugh! That ‘60’s music!” But when we went out at intermission he said, “This is a very powerful show.” I asked if the music still sounded dated to him or if he had gotten used to it, and he said that it was still a period piece but he liked it.
Oh yes, this is a period piece, written by very young men at a time when the mass of young people known as the Baby Boomers were arrogantly asserting their ownership of all things adult: notably sex and religion along with popular entertainment. In retrospect, Jesus Christ Superstar is a thoroughly mediocre piece of theatre, music, and theology, and yet it has had an enormous impact on all three areas. Where O’Horgan went so horribly wrong – so wrong that Lloyd Weber himself publicly denounced the original Broadway production – was in trying to make this essentially musical work into a theatrical spectacle. The Passion of Christ is such great material that it can change your life if you read it by the light of a candle in a bare prison cell. You don’t need sets and costumes and light shows to get the message across. The Mac-Haydn understands this about 90% of the time. The stage is stark white, and the costumes are basically white with splashes of color added on top. They let the fine cast, enhanced by the presence of dozens of local children and teens, just sing the story. The music and the lyrics are dated (I just cringed when the Apostles let loose with “What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s a-happenin’?” Brandon was shocked when Caiaphas announced “Jesus is cool!”) and they are remarkably repetitive. But I burst in to tears nonetheless, and so did Brandon, we just cried at different times.
I said that this was a fine cast, and it is. I just about stood up and cheered when I saw that the very talented but underutilized Mac-Haydn regular Marcia Kunkel would be playing Mary Magdalene. Trust me, its worth the ticket price just to hear her sing I Don’t Know How to Love Him. Chris Bentivegna takes the plum part of Judas Iscariot and runs with it. The show is really written from Judas’ point of view, and Lloyd Weber has given this role some really great tunes. Bentivegna just sings the…heck…out of them (could I have used the other “H” word since I was talking about Judas??) Tim Carosi has dutifully grown long Shroud of Turin hair and a beard and looks appropriately Christ-like. Lloyd Weber has created a vocally challenging role here and Carosi manages what Brandon called “the screaming parts” very well. Yes, Jesus sings real ‘60’s screaming, guitar-bashing rock ‘n’ roll. A real blast from the past.
The cast is rounded out by a host of Mac-Haydn regulars and those many local children previously mentioned, all of whom seem to be having a splendid time. How often do us regular people get to belt out rock music? I was especially impressed with the job the young kids did as the cripples who mob Jesus demanding to be healed.
On our hour long drive home, Brandon and I discussed scripture and theology and theatre and time and space and many other subjects that it is often hard to broach with your pre-teen. If you don’t consider Jesus Christ Superstar sacreligious or offensive (and you have had three decades to figure if you do), I can’t think of a better family outing than to this production. The Mac-Haydn takes the Christianity of this show very seriously, and despite all of the oddly dated faults of the music and lyrics, this is still the Greatest Story Ever Told. Get your tickets now.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” runs through September 9 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre (518-392-9292), on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs just under Two hours with one intermission.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2001