‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ reopens old debates

June 28, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

“Jesus Christ Superstar” started raising eyebrows — and ire — before the initial run debuted on Broadway in 1971, and the production at Village Theatre in downtown Issaquah is no exception.

Aaron Finley (left), as Jesus, and Michael K. Lee, as Judas, star in Village Theatre’s modern-day interpretation of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ By Jay Koh/Village Theatre

The groundbreaking rock opera about Jesus Christ’s last days has attracted criticism from audience members since the show opened May 11.

“We’ve had some people that feel like it’s in some way sacrilegious because it’s not a traditional robes-and-sandals telling,” Village Theatre Executive Producer Robb Hunt said.

The playhouse is celebrated — and sometimes denounced — for bold choices, including a same-sex kiss in “The Wedding Banquet” in 2003 and male nudity — albeit, a snapshot — in “The Full Monty” late last year.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” presented a more complicated challenge. The subject is difficult enough, but updating 40-year-old material for a modern-day setting also risked alienating theatergoers.

Village Theatre alumnus and Issaquah High School grad Brian Yorkey returned to direct the show and envisioned the overhaul to the setting.

“I’d like the audience to be devastated and inspired,” he said before “Jesus Christ Superstar” opened in Issaquah. “Devastated at the tragedy of two men who believed in a cause, but whose different choices and different destinies led them to lose each other’s friendship and then to lose both of their lives — but inspired by the idea of believing in a cause and believing in change and love and equality and peace, and the sacrifices that a person can make to try to further that cause.”

Production raises anti-Semitism concerns

The production pulls the action from ancient Jerusalem into a gritty alternate reality similar to the 21st century.

If you go

‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

  • Village Theatre — Francis J. Gaudette Theatre
  • 303 Front St. N.
  • Through July 3
  • Show times vary
  • $20 to $60
  • 392-2202 or www.villagetheatre.org

The musical and the updated setting attracted concerns about anti-Semitism from Seattle arts journalist Alice Kaderlan.

“But these difficulties pale before the fundamental issue the production raises, namely: Why is Village Theatre presenting an overtly anti-Semitic show whose core premise — that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion — has been definitively refuted by none other than Pope Benedict XVI?” she asked in a post on Crosscut, a nonprofit news website based in Seattle.

Concerns about anti-Semitism and blasphemy against Christianity dogged “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 1971 and have re-emerged across the decades.

“I personally don’t see that in the show at all,” Hunt said. “I think that it’s all of the people. It’s more of a mob mentality statement than it is anything about Jews.”

The production re-imagines the apostles as ruffians, moneychangers as Wall Street traders and Pontius Pilate as a stuffed shirt. Kaderlan raised concerns about how “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Village Theatre depicts Caiaphas and other high priests.

“But the Jewish priests are still Jewish priests, skullcaps and all,” she continued. “If the audience fails to get the message that it was the Jews who killed Jesus, Yorkey drives it home visually in a way that’s direct and unavoidable.”

Hunt said the piece, like other Village Theatre productions, is designed to start conversations among audience members.

“It’s getting multiple generations to come to the shows together and have meaningful discussions and meaningful communications,” he said. “No matter what your viewpoint, there certainly is, I think, something in this show to talk about.”

The theater last presented “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 1993. The production featured robes and sandals, but also enough leather to impart a “Mad Max” accent. Hunt recalled positive reaction to the show, despite the adjustments.

For audiences, nudity trumps blasphemy

In the current telling, “Brian’s treatment of the show, I think, is extremely well-researched, thought out, all of that. He’s definitely taken a little bit of an unusual tack,” Hunt added.

He attributed some of the criticism to “some people taking offense at the way the show was written in the first place” and others being upset because the production is loud. So, the theater offers earplugs to audience members.

“Compared to ‘The Full Monty’ this year, the amount of written reaction has been minimal,” Hunt said. “We had a lot more for ‘The Full Monty’ than we have for this show.”

“The Full Monty” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” act as contentious bookends to the 2010-11 season.

The theater is also planning daring choices for next season. The musical “Take Me America” is meant, in part, to foster discussions about the ongoing immigration debate. “The Producers,” another offering, is designed to offend — and charm — audiences.

In the meantime, “Jesus Christ Superstar” closes in Issaquah on July 3, and then the show shifts to Everett.

“It’s always a delicate question to ask people of faith to see their faith treated in a fictional way that might not accord directly with what they believe or what they have learned in church,” Yorkey said. “But I do believe that ultimately in this case, and in all cases, that that’s done honorably the end result really elevates and deepens someone’s understanding of what that faith is and where it comes from.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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One Response to “‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ reopens old debates”

  1. stephen matlock on June 29th, 2011 5:32 pm

    It’s a show. Not a religious tract. The writers of the show weren’t trying to tell the familiar story – they were telling a re-imagined story, trying to get across the complicated message of how we choose, build, and destroy our heroes and messiahs.

    Watch it for the story.

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