There’s always something appealing when a religious source text is given a reimagining in a different medium. In the case of Jesus Christ Superstar, the familiar gospel is given a new set of pipes.
The juxtaposition of 1970s rock laid against the backdrop of Roman Jerusalem is a hard feat to pull off, but the staging put on by Casa Mañana proved very fruitful, with an effective yet visually simple set, that involved walls and staircases on tracts. The rest of the scenery was filled in with an amazing lighting scheme that could change the Old Temple walls to the Garden of Gethsemane effortlessly. The costumes, too, were an amazing blend of the standard biblical story garb and something that the BeeGees might’ve worn. All in all, the visual set up took my breath away.
Now for the music: the orchestra pit delivered its sweeping interpretation, and it had me keeping the beat with my toe. The musicians clearly knew the music well, and it heightened the on-stage drama perfectly. Those on stage held up their end of the bargain as well.
Following Judas as a protagonist is supposed to challenge the audience; his name is a step above Brutus in the leagues of backstabbers. Hearing him sing and seeing him express his inner conflict really tugged at the heartstrings, making for an intense and saddening arc. Jesus’s portrayal was also greatly entertaining, as well as thought provoking. Being a particularly secular interpretation of the source material, we never hear the voice of God thundering from above, but only an exasperated Jesus calling out to the sky. But the Pharisees’ high priest stole every scene in which he appeared, his low booming voice a conscious contrast to the higher registers of Jesus, Judas and the other condemners. He was clearly having fun with the role, too, and was a joy to watch. Unfortunately the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus was given very little attention. Her affection for Jesus was made clear, but their interest in one another was only given fleeting allusions. It might have been an interesting point to focus on, but it’s forgivable in this stellar rendition of the play. Pilate is played as the bureaucrat with his hands tied, doing his best to appease, but also wanting to hear both sides of the story. And the portrayal of the disciples as members of some sort of fringe cult adds a bit of perspective to the events. After all, the era that this musical comes from was familiar with charismatic leaders and their eager devotees.
Jesus Christ Superstar does a lot to humanize all the players in this ancient account, but the play is not concerned with making you think. Rightfully so, it’s more concerned with making you feel through the music. And this year, it made for a great season opener at Casa Mañana, leaving you excited to see what else is in store.