Rejoice for Village Theatre’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ reboot
May 17, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
The tale, so familiar to believers and nonbelievers alike, is upended as soon as “Jesus Christ Superstar” opens.
The apostles scale a chain-link fence and enter a fascist alternate reality steeped in modern dress and slang.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” is more Lady Gaga’s “Judas” than Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in Village Theatre’s just-opened production. The monumental rock opera runs through July 3 and closes the theater’s 2010-11 season.
In the Issaquah playhouse’s rendition, the greatest story ever told trades robes and sandals for bandanas and drainpipe jeans, and from performance to performance, trades actors in the lead roles.
Michael K. Lee and Aaron Finley alternate as Jesus and Judas.
Still, the stunt succeeds. Lee and Finley exhibit a curious and thrilling alchemy as the most memorable odd couple in history. Lee, as Jesus on opening night May 12, displayed strength and a preternatural calm. Finley brooded and fidgeted as Jesus’ compatriot-turned-betrayer.
Indeed, both performers offer enormous talent. Lee captures Jesus’ anguish and confusion as a man struggling to accept celebrity. Finley adds authentic humanity to Judas, a role prone to caricature.
The performers rely on a pop sensibility to scale the most intense songs in the pulse-pounding score. Lee and Finley compress as much energy as possible into each number. The show includes little spoken dialogue — only a smattering per act — making the actors’ feat all the more impressive.
The original Broadway production in 1971 envisioned the apostles as a lost tribe from “Hair” and carried the same carefree touches on stage. (In fact, the initial Broadway runs shared the same director.)
If you go
‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
The gospel according to Brian — as in Yorkey, Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner for “Next to Normal” — unfolds in a Jerusalem depicted as a crumbling streetscape.
Yorkey decided against a robes-and-sandals treatment before signing on as director. Instead, the setting for “Jesus Christ Superstar” resembles a ruined block in Detroit or another burned-out metropolis. The apostles dine at the Last Supper at rough planks perched atop barrels and tires.
The youthful and multiethnic cast re-imagines the apostles as ragtag activists. “Jesus Christ Superstar” opens as the group is on the lam. Searchlights, meant to evoke helicopters, pan across the audience.
The lighting effect illustrates how the action is not limited to the proscenium. Instead, the entire theater transforms into a stage: Apostles leap from seats, bogus banknotes rain on the audience during the moneychangers scene and, in a crushing sequence near the end, Jesus bears the cross along the aisle.
Yorkey, a former Village Theatre associate artistic director and Issaquah native, understands the optimum way to use the space.
The production yokes Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score and Tim Rice’s lyrics to Daniel Cruz’s hip-hop- and punk-inflected choreography.
James Schneider, in particular, demonstrates masterful moves as the most nimble-footed apostle, Simon.
Jennifer Paz imparts tenderness as a Mary Magdalene outfitted in glinting facial piercings, especially in the classic “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” — a plaintive song in a production defined by ostentatious numbers.
Pontius Pilate resembles a freshman congressman, BlackBerry to the ear, no doubt on a call to Rome.
Greg Stone depicts Pilate as a cog in a far-flung empire and, perhaps, a cosmic plan. The prefect frets in the haunting “Pilate’s Dream” about condemning Jesus to death, but in the end, succumbs to pressure from a mob.
“And then I heard them mentioning my name,” he sings. “And leaving me the blame.”
(Stone debuted at Village Theatre as the title character in a 1993 “Jesus Christ Superstar” staging.)
Eric Polani Jensen is as cold-blooded as a crime boss in the Caiaphas role. The high priest convinces Judas to reveal Jesus’ location to authorities for 30 pieces of silver.
The soldiers sent to arrest Jesus resemble a cross between Nazi and “Star Wars” storm troopers. In a clever maneuver, the team uses Plexiglas riot shields as drums.
Brandon Whitehead, as a flamboyant King Herod, delivers the lone lighthearted moment in a somber tale. Herod references Jesus’ past miracles to taunt the captured Messiah: “Prove to me that you’re no fool; walk across my swimming pool.”
The intentional anachronisms — some playful, others less so — do not stop at the songs or the scenery.
Jesus dons a smart scarf plucked from a rack at Urban Outfitters. The apostle Peter sports a hipster fedora. The adoring crowd during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is cut from a J.Crew catalog.
The creative team uses costumes to propel the storyline, too.
The moneychangers in the temple appear as Wall Street suits, a not-so-subtle reference to 21st-century greed.
The high priests scheme in colorless suits and skullcaps. Only Caiaphas displays some color: a red necktie, as vivid as a drop of blood against snow.
Such changes represent risk, but the cast and creative team triumph in the Village Theatre production.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” raised eyebrows in 1971. Nowadays, describing the pop culture phenomenon as sacrilegious seems quaint. The bold presentation in Issaquah is different than the usual, but the setup does not shock, not in the post-“Like a Prayer” era.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.