Sunday, October 13, 2013

Superstar: The Greatest Story Ever Wailed

By James E. Trainor III
photo by Alisabeth Von Presley

Cedar Rapids - Jesus Christ Superstar is a piece with a lot of staying power, partly because it tells such an important story from human history, partly because it occupies such a crucial space in rock history. Andrew Lloyd Weber's compositions draw off of gospel music as well as the burgeoning metal scene of the late 60s; the overall feel catches the zeitgeist of the time perfectly and is still very fresh today. It is significant in that few other Broadway shows with such a grand operatic scale were so hip, so catchy, and so modern. The story itself, that of the passion of Jesus Christ with a focus on his relationship with Judas, is at once very familiar and larger than life. TCR's production, directed by Leslie Charipar with Music Direction by Janelle Lauer and Choreography by Aaron Canterbury, does a great job of capturing both the style and the story of the piece.

We've heard this story a million times, for obvious reasons, but it's still as moving every time it's done right. The backdrop alone is astounding, the perfect setup for a bloody revolution: the Romans conquer the Jewish homeland, building great cities but crippling the poor. The Temple Elders, practically in the Romans' pocket, only make the situation worse. Along comes Jesus of Nazareth, a charismatic young rabbi with a zealous following, demanding change and threatening to bring the Roman army down on everyone's heads. It's a historical powderkeg if ever there was one.

The choreography that takes place during the Overture presents this situation very clearly and very creatively. The Temple Priests, standing above the peasants on a stone arch, dressed like some scary guys who just got out of a Motörhead concert, attempt to exert control over the rabble with mimed puppet strings. The Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (Jon Day) looks on approvingly. Then the Apostles come to the rescue, storming the stage looking like Occupy Jerusalem: dressed in ragtag outfits but bursting with revolutionary energy, Judas with a cross on his back, Simon with a rifle. Then comes Jesus (Aaron Brewer), in an unassuming white jacket, walking through the audience on a railing, hopping onto the stage, and bringing peace.

This setup grabs attention right away, and is a key example of the great direction, choreography, costuming, and ensemble work that keep the show moving through this very powerful story. Other notable numbers are: "The Temple," where a seemingly endless parade of beggars, cripples and lepers crawl out of the set and mob Jesus; "Damned for All Time/Blood Money," which features some great acting and singing from Judas (Ben Lafayette) and the priests of the Temple; and "Trial by Pilate," in which the ensemble plays a frightening mob screaming for Jesus' crucifixion. All of these scenes carry extremely high energy and tension, and are simply dazzling to witness.

Judas is one of the central characters of Jesus Christ Superstar, at times even more central than Jesus. In this telling of the story, the apostles are basically swept up in the "buzz," and much of the action is a struggle between Judas and Jesus to define the movement. Judas is both purist and pragmatist, warning Jesus he's going to far, that they can be more effective if they stay on message. Jesus, of course, has a higher purpose, but even he seems to doubt it. Lafayette's acting is excellent; he is always engaged, always listening, always pushing the restless energy of Judas. His voice is great as well, and his soulful howl communicates Judas' suffering very well.

Brewer is very good as Jesus, tackling a very daunting role with tireless energy. His vocal work is astounding; he goes up and down this really difficult score, punctuating the more dramatic moments with a high-pitched animal wail that pushes the humanity of the character out in a very visceral way. He's very likable and able to communicate the internal conflict as well.

Other standouts in the cast include: Treashana Baker as Mary Magdalene, whose gorgeous voice carries the show in many tear-jerking moments; Logan Schultz, who energetically wails in his solo as Simon the Zealot; Jon Day, whose great acting clues us in to the inner turmoil of Pilate; and Greg Smith as Annas, whose rock-and-roll falsetto is simply amazing.

The set design, by Bret Gothe, and lighting design, by Derek Easton, combine with the costume design by Joni Sackett and Marnie Marshall to give us just the right level of spectacle for so grand a show. And the band is incredible. Kudos to Dave Ollinger, Forrest Green, Greg Kanz, Gerard Estella, Willie Wells, Matt Brooks, and Janelle Lauer for nailing such a complex and interesting score, and doing it with style and grace.

What's the buzz? Go see Jesus Christ Superstar. It's not just a rock opera; it's an opera that rocks.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs through November 2. Tickets available here.

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