Jesus Christ Superstar

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 4:32 AM

As I noted last night, I just had the pleasure of seeing the Muny production of Jesus Christ Superstar. It would be stating the obvious to say this was a bit different from Grease. Unlike my commentary on that a few weeks ago, in which I had a hard time pointing out non-objectionable parts of it, there is very little to object to in Weber's “rock opera” and a lot to appreciate.

As is the case for anyone dealing with Christ's passion, especially someone attempting to tell the story in a non-traditional way, Weber took some risks. It doesn't therefore surprise me that the musical was controversial when it came out. Jesus' humanity is emphasized over His divinity, even He seem to almost doubt His nature, but as a whole, Judas seems to suggest Jesus takes an active role in letting people call Him God, which is a far more noticeable recognition of Jesus as a willing recipient of that title than the minor comments made by Jesus that may suggest the opposite. That is, Weber and Rice do not run with the idea that Jesus never claimed to be God, unlike — yes, Mark, I'm sure you're waiting for this — Dan Brown.

As a whole, the musical provided a powerful portrayal of the last week before the crucifixion in such a jarringly different way that it actually amplified some parts, rather than diminishing them. I appreciate the perspective of Judas, something that the Gospels do not provide for us, but have rather left us to imagine for ourselves. I generally believe that suggesting Judas did the deed exclusively for the 30 pieces of silver is an oversimplification. Perhaps he did think he was helping Jesus, or at least keeping Jesus from causing more “harm” to His followers, as the Judas in the play suggests. (I've often leaned more on the idea that perhaps, like Simon the Zealot, he might have been looking for a — well — zealous removal of the Romans and was trying to force it to happen.)

The lack of a resurrection scene was a bit disappointing.

What I'd really like to mention again, though, is the actors themselves. The actor playing Jesus put in a superb performance, particularly in the temple scene's piercing cry. Judas, in my opinion, stole the show with an absolutely stellar performance; the actor playing Judas had the voice to tackle some very difficult songs and he did so powerfully (I think notably better than the singer on the official Superstar soundtrack). His voice was powerful and clear, even when he was hunched over. The man playing Herod, who apparently is no stranger to the Muny, also put in a marvelous performance that showed he felt entirely at home on this stage, and the actress playing Mary Magdalene had an excellent voice with a slight hint of a country music singer in it.

My major complaint, if it can be considered one, is that the majority of the music in this play was not memorable on its own. As a whole, the play was excellent, but unlike some other musicals (perhaps, to an extent, even Grease), it lacked the stand alone songs that otherwise might stick in my head. Meredith Wilson's the Music Man, which I enjoyed at the Muny last year, left me with such notable tunes as Marian the Librarian, Lida Rose, Good Night, My Someone, You Got Trouble and, of course, Seventy-Six Trombones stuck in constant rotation in my head for sometime after seeing it and they remain in fairly frequent “shuffle” there (not to mention on my iPod; I own the original broadway soundtrack of it now).

With a musical, I suppose one can seek two different things: music or a story. Ideally, the play will provide both. Superstar does, but, ironically, I think the fact that all of the words are set to music does actually weaken its music outside of the story.

Still, I'd be tempted to go back to the Muny and sit in the free seats to hear it again, if it wasn't quite so long of drive to go there.

Rating: ***1/2

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