“SuperStar” Still Rises High
“What’s the Buzz, tell me what’s happening?” A line from “Jesus Christ Superstar” gave this blog its name so it is appropriate for this first theater-related post to be about “JCS.”
Like a baptism by fire, Jesus Christ Superstar rarely leaves an audience in lukewarm waters and the stellar concert production at the Chocolate Church over Easter weekend was no exception. From the first note sung by Ben Proctor (Judas) emotional intensity carried the audience on an intimate journey filled with rapture, agony and betrayal. This version by these actors and singers illuminated the transcendent power of the human spirit with a passion that went straight to the heart.
Thom Watson directed Jesus Christ Superstar in 1997 at the Chocolate Church. He managed to gather 90 % of the original performers for the 20th anniversary of their performance and to, once again, defy the odds by packing the theater for all three performances.
In 1970 Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s album, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” hit the shelves and the brown-jacketed two album set was wearing out needles and turntables and parents’ patience almost immediately. As a concept album before it was a Broadway play, it attracted a limited, although fervent audience. From Broadway it became a movie in 1973 and provoked picketing and protests by religious groups. A rock opera about the final days of Christ? A sympathetic portrait of Judas? A question about whether Jesus was a man or a god? How dare they?
Some went to see the show this past weekend primarily because people they cared about were up on that stage performing parts that were challenging 20 years ago. If they were going to put it all out there for the audience, supporters were going to be there to cheer them on. What they saw was one of those rare times on a stage when talent meets actual magic. How else can it be explained? Hours and hours of hard work, yes. Magnificent vocal work, yes. Heart, guts and raw emotion flew across the footlights right up into the balcony: not overdone, fake emotion, not 'acting' but genuine love and honest understanding.
Empathy was drawn from the audience, not put on exhibition for them to observe dispassionately. The audience was moved to cheers often, to laughter sometimes, and to tears. The cheering at the conclusion was deafening.
Reprising his 1997 role Ron Bouffard (Jesus) set the tone as a gentle man, conflicted by the demands placed upon him by both his Father and his followers. His rendition of “Gethsemane,” a demanding and vocally difficult piece, was spot on. His vocals were precise and lovely and his interpretation was flawless. Often pieces like this can be delivered with a loud sameness bordering on screaming. Not so with Bouffard: he gave the audience a portrait of a man struggling with his destiny, a man questioning the purpose he felt sent to fulfill. By choosing to deliver the innermost thoughts in a gentler way, he allowed the audience to feel more fully for themselves the kind of torment he was expressing.
Gregory Charette played Judas back in ’97 and took on the role of Herod this time out. The wildly comic but powerful Herod is a relieved laugh in the middle of all the intensity and Charrette gave ‘tour de farce’ performance in the role, contrasting beautifully with the tragedy unfolding around him. John York as a reluctant Pontius Pilate gave full measure to the conflict one hopes any reasoning person would have over sentencing an innocent man to death. His rendition of “Pilates Dream” was haunting.
Sheldon Bird (Caiaphas) and Sumner Richards ( Annas) were the perfect duo of ‘bad guy’ The contrast between the deep deep bass of Bird’s Caiaphas and the wheedling tones of Richards’ Annas was brilliant. Marc Rodriguez (Peter) and Dennis Doiron (Simon Zealots) were also reprising their earlier roles and brought clean crisp vocals and great energy to the roles. Enough cannot be said about the caliber of vocal talent on that stage and the quality of the work on this anniversary production.Teresa Henderson was a sweet Mary Magdalene who brought a gentle touch to the show. The conflict with Judas in “Everything’s All Right” was particularly well done.
Judas was the only lead role not played by a 1997 cast member. Ben Proctor’s relative youth played nicely into the idealism of a Judas who demanded a reckoning. Proctor went straight to the heart offering the audience a man who sees his dreams being dragged down into religious and political fanaticism. He pleads with his friend, “I remember how this whole thing began; no talk of God then, we called you a man.” The passion, energy, and raw emotion that Ben Proctor brought to this production left the audience breathless. It was a bravura performance. Watch for him. He’ll be entertaining for years to come.
The entire cast, the orchestra, director, and crew deserve kudos for bringing back what is arguably the greatest rock opera of all time and for doing it proud. Now in its 5th decade, Jesus Christ Superstar is performed all over the world.
Rock musicals are now de rigueur and religious-inspired artworks are less shocking than they were years ago. Still, this Star in loving hands like the crew at the Chocolate Church this week just keeps rising higher.