Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The story, told through Andrew Lloyd Weber's music and Tim Rice's lyrics, is about the last seven days in the life of Jesushis rapturous reception into Jerusalem, disruption of the crass marketplace in the temple, his exhaustion at trying to meet all of his followers needs, the last supper with his disciples, his betrayal, trials before Herod, Pilate and the crowd, now turned against him, and the crucifixion. In other scenes the high priests, led by Caiaphas, voice fears that Jesus will challenge their authority and "for the greater good, Jesus must die"; Pontius Pilate, the Roman administrator, ponders a dream in which he is blamed for the death of Jesus; Judas is persuaded by Caiaphas to betray Jesus, later, begs for the bargain made with the priests to be cancelled, and in the end, takes his own life; and Mary Magdalene expresses bewilderment at experiencing a love so pure.
The greatest departure from biblical texts are scenes devised by Lloyd Weber and Rice in which Judas pleads with Jesus to rein in his followers' belief that he is the son of God, fearing that the people will revolt when they realize Jesus is just a man, like any other. Judas chastises Jesus for his attention to Mary Magdalene, and for the extravagance of being anointed with oil when so many are hungry and sick. The show does not make Judas a hero, but does present him as a man of principal. He is flawed and, in the end, remorseful, but not bad. Jesus, too, is presented as having conflicts of mind. As the end draws near, he questions whether he has made a difference even as he resolutely fulfills his destiny.
All of this is done through song. Lloyd Weber's music includes several memorable melodies, along with some that work primarily as connective tissue between scenes. It ranges from rock to power ballad to a vaudevillian turn ("King Herod's Song") to anthems, each effectively placed within the narrative arc. Tim Rice's lyrics are clever and literate, balancing characters' emotions with storytelling. The complex feelings of Jesus, Judas, Mary Magdalene and Pontius Pilate are in particular expressed well.
Happily, those parts are cast with tremendously talented actors, whose voices relay the story, express emotions, and carry the soaring notes of the music all at once. Jesse Nager is the center of the show as Jesus, presenting a less than perfect man who may yet be a god, and bringing down the house with the power of his voice. Randy Schmeling who in the past has had a strong presence in supporting roles, here holds his own against Nager's Jesus, raising challenging questions, expressing fraught emotions, and facing impossible decisions, sung with a remarkably strong and moving tenor, then becomes a bizarre master of ceremonies for the mind-bending "Superstar," which late in the show asks the question that is the key to it all: "Jesus Christ, Superstar, are you the things that they say you are?"
Lauren Villegas is sweetly expressive as Mary Magdalene, commanding the stage in "Everything's Alright" and a heartrending "I Don't Know How to Love Him." She and Rudolph Searles III, as the disciple Peter, lead a lovely take on the sorrowful "Could We Start Again, Please." As Pontius Pilate, Dieter Bierbrauer puts his sturdy baritone to good effect, expressing the internal confusion of a powerful man struggling to make sense of the swirl of events around him.
James Ramlet's thunderous bass puts fear into the words sung by high priest Caiaphas, while Erin Schwab has an enormously good time as King Herod, leading her buff male and curvy female courtiers in the rollicking "King Herod's Song." A fair amount of attention has been given to the casting of a woman in this role, as well as casting a black man as Jesus. I found that casting a woman as King Herod adds another notch to the improbability of the entire scene, given that the anachronistic show biz trappings of her number already set it apart from the generally somber tenor of the show. Erin Schwab's performance is broadly comedic, a top banana turn, with all the ingredients to make it work.
As for casting Jesse Nager, a black actor, as Jesus, from my perspective, Nager plays the part as written, fully immersed in the role, and his being black does not alter that. Nothing in the material nor in Rocco's direction directs attention to his race, nor to the race of any other characters in this diversely cast company. Of course, a black Jesus can underscore the point that people of all races are included in the grace of Jesus' life and martyrdom.
The other actors and ensemble members all sing heartily, doing gorgeous choral work, and move with terrific energy, at times with total abandon expressing the ecstasy of their devotion to Jesus, at other times with graceful discipline. A children's ensemble adds a spirit of innocence, and also an awareness of the future generations impacted by the story being told. The costumes, lighting and sets are all exquisite, and the sound especially excellent, enabling the lyrics to be distinctly understood over the amplified sixteen-piece orchestra, ably conducted by Andrew Bourgoin.
Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice were unknowns when the record album of the rock opera was released in 1970. It was a huge success, rising to number one on the Billboard chart of pop albums in the U.S., with "I Don't Know How to Love You," sung by Yvonne Elliman on the album, becoming a hit single. It had detractors as well. Some found Lloyd Weber's music more sappy pop than driving rock, though that can be considered a matter of taste. There was criticism of the liberties taken with the revered story, such as putting the question of whether Jesus was a god or just a man up for debate, and portraying Judas in a sympathetic light. There were also fears of fueling anti-Semitism by depicting Jewish priests scheming to capture Jesus and the Jewish crowd's demand that he be crucified.
Still, success breeds success, and within a year, the "rock opera" moved from vinyl disc to Broadway. To bring "rock" bonafides to the stage, it was directed by Tom O'Horgan, who had made theater history with Hair, the unlikely marriage of Central Park hippie culture with Broadway production valuesand prices. As for calling it "opera," the show was completely sung-through, without a syllable of spoken dialogue. It met with mixed responses from the critics, but the title had enough fans to run for close to two years. A fairly well-received movie version came out in 1973 (Fun fact: Norman Jewison directed the movie Jesus Christ Superstar as the follow up to his 1971 film version of Fiddler on the Roof).
Jesus Christ Superstar remains a well-known property, mounted often at regional, college, community, and dinner theaters. Its take on theology can be debated, but no one can deny that, at the least, it presents a story that has had a pervasive and powerful impact on Western civilization. Is there a sense at the Ordway that the time was right for them to bring back the show now? Perhaps. Whatever the reason, Jesus Christ Superstar is on stage in a glorious production, quite likely making the show better than it deserves to be. This is spectacular theater.
Jesus Christ Superstar continues at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts through July 30, 2017. 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets from $120.50 - $67.00, Partial View: $37.00, Standing Room: $34.00. For tickets call 651 224-4222 or go to Ordway.org
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber; Lyrics: Tim Rice; Director and Choreographer: James Rocco; Musical Director: Andrew Bourgoin; Scenic and Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Costume Design: Marybeth Gagner and Jeffrey Meek; Sound Design: Andy Horka/Big Air Productions; Hair and Make-Up Design: Robert A. Dunn; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Fight Choreographer: Aaron Preusse; Flying by Foy; Casting Director: Reid Harmsen; Associate Music Director: Raymond Berg; Associate Choreographers: Lisa Bartholomew-Given and Ashley Selmer; Production Stage Manager: Sharon Bach; Production Manager: Andrew G. Luft
Cast: Lisa Bartholomew-Given (Soul Girl/ensemble), Rush Benson (Phillip), Tommy Benson (Thomas), Stephanie Bertumen (ensemble), Dieter Bierbrauer (Pontius Pilate), John Brink (Annas), Julius Collins (Priest/Roman Guard/ ensemble), Reid Harmsen (Bartholomew), Timmy Hays (Soul Girl/ ensemble), Joseph Hitchcock (Priest/Roman Guard/ensemble), Patrick Charles Jeffrey (Andrew), Kayla Jennerson (Soul Girl/ ensemble), Brad Madison (Jude), Louise Madison (ensemble), Lauren Masiello (ensemble), Cameron Meilicke (John, the Beloved), Adam Moen (James, the Lesser), Wesley Mouri (James), Jesse Nager (Jesus of Nazareth), Kym Chambers Otto (ensemble), Jorge Quintero (Matthew), James Ramlet (Caiaphas), Terance Reddick (Simon Zealotes), Kirsten Rodau (Maid by the Fire/ensemble), Seth Russel (Roman Guard/ ensemble), Erin Schwab (King Herod), Randy Schmeling (Judas Iscariot), Rudolph Searles III (Peter), Lauren Villegas (Mary Magdalene), Leah Zahner (ensemble).
Youth of Bethany and Jerusalem: Caitlyn Carroll, Mario Ester, Ayden Ntsaag Ab Her, Gavihn Lee, Josephine Turk, Mabel Weismann, Huxley Westemeier, Valerie Wick.