KPBS AIRDATE: September 15, 1993
Okay, we all know we’re not in the seventies any more. But you have to bring back some of the old hopped-up, hippie feeling to make “Jesus Christ Superstar” work. You can’t just focus on the story, the last seven days in the life of Christ. The piece requires more than a modicum of twangy rock guitar, eye-blinking pyrotechnics and above all, camp.
The last production of the Moonlight Amphitheatre’s summer season delivers… and it doesn’t. What began in 1971 as a flamboyant rock opera has been turned into a heavily-cast, sweetly sung, gorgeous-to-look-at passion play. Despite magnificent lighting, high-spirited dancing, and a nonstop series of stage pictures that resemble the Pageant of the Masters, this “Jesus” has lost something vital in its interpretation by the highly creative director-choreographer Ray Limon and musical director David Chase.
The original Broadway production was quite controversial. The theater was picketed by Protestants, Catholics and Jews. In fact, before it was staged, creators Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice couldn’t find a producer willing to take a chance on such a daring approach to the ancient story. So a record album was released first, and after it sold over a million copies, Broadway and its audiences were ready to see Jesus through the eyes of Judas _ a black Judas, at that. The characters were exaggerated, outlandish. The music, already familiar, mainly served to underscore the spectacle.
But this week, in Vista, everything seems sort of toned-down. The costumes are Biblical/traditional, the music isn’t too high-energy or high-volume, the color palette is muted earth-tones. In short, it’s a nice, safe version of “Jesus Christ Superstar” that surely to God couldn’t offend anyone if it tried. And that’s too bad. The earnest reverence of the production seems to spotlight the lame lyrics and the fact that there aren’t that many great songs in the score. A little more spectacle would go a long way. The price of temperance is that no one will become wildly intoxicated by an unforgettable extravaganza.
But everyone will enjoy the singing. John Bisaha is a very down-to-earth Jesus, not very ethereal but likable, with a dynamic, wide-ranging voice. Joseph Stafford Harper is a sulking, skulking Judas, who gives a powerful musical performance, but I wish he had been asked to be more physically agile, active and energetic. Alicia Irving, soon to be seen in Lloyd Webber’s latest concoction, “Sunset Boulevard,” is a sultry and wondrous-voiced Mary Magdalene, though her line-readings of songs sometimes obscure their meaning. David Roberts hams it up as King Herod, but much more would be much better. Nevertheless, this Egyptian Busby Berkeley/ Rockettes charleston number comes out clever, if not outrageous.
Overall, it’s not the music in this production that turns your head or stays in your mind; it’s those glorious, painterly stage pictures. This “Jesus” may not be a rock superstar, but what a divine feast for the eyes!
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.