First of all, DOMA Theatre Company’s revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, which brings Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s seminal early seventies rock opera back to the live stage, is a great production that rocks. The sonorous score, performed live by a five piece orchestra conducted by musical director/pianist Chris Raymond, with lyrics sung by soloists and a large, gifted ensemble, blows the roof off of Hollywood’s MET Theatre. But this two act musical is a feast for the eyes, as well as the ears. Angela Todaro’s choreography ranges from the balletic to the Busby Berkeley-ish to the old soft shoe; Lauren Oppelt’s costumes run the gamut from modern dress to S&M leather to Warner Bros. 1930s musicals.
The performers are too numerous to cite each individually (say, it is a Biblical epic, if not exactly with the proverbial cast of thousands!), but standouts include: Jeremy Saje sings up a storm as Judas, whom he depicts as being more conflicted (and probably envious) than villainous or greedy. Kelly Brighton gives voice to a vacillating Pontius Pilate, the Roman Grand Imperial Poobah for Judea, who for some reason wears an eye patch (his name is Pilate, not Pirate!), a smoking jacket Hugh Hefner might be comfortable in and later, another jacket with a Nehru collar. As Hebrew high priest Caiaphas a creepy Andrew Diego cleverly wears a contemporary business suit (as do the other Sanhedrins), and seems like a cross between Johnny Depp in a Tim Burton flick, Alice Cooper and A Clockwork Orange’s Droogs.
Renee Cohen is good as the stand-by-your-man Mary Magdalene who arguably has the show’s best songs – the ballad “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Everything’s Alright” – which she pulls off well. (However, Cohen fights an uphill battle against lingering memories of the superb Yvonne Elliman, the Hawaiian singer/actress who was cannily cast in the role that dared suggest JC had a sex life, giving a Biblical spin to the stereotype of South Seas sirens as sexually uninhibited, pneumatic, natural nymphs. Sorry, Renee – for diehard Elliman fans, it’s a case of: “If I can’t have Yvonne, I don’t want nobody, baby!”)
Venny Carranza steals the show as Herod, the Roman client king of Judea who mercilessly mocks that other would-be king of the Jews in a showstopper filled with tap dancers that has a vaudevillian flair. Carranza hilariously high steps, sneers with the panache of a mustache twirling silent screen villain and generally brings the house down in this number.
Of course, members of the 14 strong-ensemble aid and abet Carranza’s scene stealing with their stellar singing, hoofing and acting throughout the two hour or so show. Typifying them is newcomer Ashlie Paige, a young beauty who shines onstage while vocalizing, dancing in a variety of styles, emoting and so on, radiating youthful enthusiasm and the joy of performing live.
There’s some good mise-en-scene by DOMA’s producer/director Marco Gomez, such as the tableaux that positions 12 cast members and JC in the same poses seen in Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting-cum-black-velvet. (Cleverly, macaroons were served at the sumptuous reception after the premiere – Jesus’ last meal was actually a Passover Seder, where macaroons are often served.)
Now, after heaping so much praise on this production of Superstar, this reviewer must, alas, raise some objections. The biggest problem is the depiction of the title character. Now, before some religious fanatics go all Charlie Hebdo on this critic, let him stress that he is NOT referring to the Biblical or historical Jesus, but rather to how Christ is portrayed in this show. Nate Parker’s voice is fine and he can hit the high notes. But his Nazarene is sulky, standoffish and often brooding about the future events that are about to occur. He pushes his acolytes away from him, literally recoils from their touch, repeatedly fails to perform miracles to cure the disabled or to impress Herod when his neck is on the line. This Jesus is a know-it-all who knows something you all don’t know, and is forever whining, moaning and groaning about the fate that’s about to befall him.
No wonder Judas is fed up with him! No wonder Mary Magdalene doesn’t “know how to love him” – who could love such a sullen, self absorbed, “woe-is-me!” crybaby? The real miracle in this production is how this character could inspire and lead a mass movement with thousands of followers, whom he frequently berates.
This reviewer doesn’t recall seeing Superstar on Broadway, but he definitely did see the 1973 Norman Jewison film version and often listened to the musical’s soundtrack. This critic does not recall thinking of Jesus as a whiner then, nor in other productions he’s seen about Christ or when reading The Gospel According to St. Matthew. (Once he’s nabbed at the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus gets the full Gitmo treatment, and really has something to kvetch about.
Of course, the Jesus myth is the best known story in the West, so most theatergoers already carry lots of Biblical baggage and will be familiar with the course of action. Otherwise, it might be hard for auds to follow the saga as presented here, and in particular, the characters’ motivations and what’s-a-happening. Why is the Hebrew liberation movement suddenly in trouble? Why does Judas go all Benedict Arnold – because JC’s splurging on expensive ointment? Inquiring minds want to know what to make of this particular iteration of Jesus of Nazareth.
In addition to making sense of things another problem is the physical presentation of JC as a stereotypical Caucasian with long light brown or blonde hair (perhaps Parker even has blue eyes?), which is an inaccurate, Europeanized conception of Christ, who came from Asia Minor and would almost certainly would have been dark-skinned. Many of this show’s cast members are multi-culti and the decision to depict a whiter-than-thou (as well as holier-than-thou) Jesus perpetuates outmoded, outdated tropes, and is almost certainly historically inaccurate.
But what might be this production’s biggest problem and the most objectionable thing about it is the depiction of Pontius Pilate, Rome’s head honcho at this corner of empire, being pressured by some Jews to crucify Jesus, which the colonial administrator in charge of the death penalty resists and is reluctant to do. In the show, these Jews push Pontius Pilate to crucify Jesus. Now, this may very well be in Webber and Rice’s original rock opera, and it may also be in the Gospel and could even be historical fact. But even if it is accurate, it feeds into one of the worst slanders against the Jewish people, that they were “Christ killers” (paging Mel Gibson!). Although this scene is admittedly well-executed onstage at the MET, given the current climate of Jews being singled out and executed at kosher delis and synagogues in Europe, DOMA might want to tone this scene down or even cut it from the production altogether. After all, since Vatican II in 1965 the Jews have been exonerated of the charge that they are collectively guilty of murdering JC. Those presenting this musical might be of sound mind and not intending to stoke anti-Semitism, but fanatics do not think rationally – and why toss oil on a fire?
DOMA ballyhoos its Superstar production as updating the Jesus myth from ancient times to today’s social media age. Although the costumes – many of them modern dress – do maintain this contemporary sensibility, the technological aspect of this version is quickly forgotten. This was also the case with DOMA’s otherwise superb staging of Tommy at the MET a while back – although the show’s publicity emphasized it was likewise updating the Who’s rock opera about the Pinball Wizard to the 21st century realm of gaming and so on, this modernizing was quickly forgotten and lost.
Nevertheless, haven’t said all this, your erstwhile reviewer still recommends DOMA’s revival of Superstar as well worth seeing – and hearing – for the glorious Webber/Rice music, singing, dancing, costumes and more. Carranza’s dance number alone is worth the price of admission to this rapturous, if flawed, extravaganza of sight and sound of the Gospel according to DOMA.
Jesus Christ Superstar is being performed on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 7:00 p.m. through March 22 at the MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90029. For more information: See www.domatheatre.com or call (323)802-9181.