I don’t know who the target audience for Signature’s resurrection of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is, but I do know who it isn’t: busloads of Baptists from the back country. The Andrew Lloyd Webber / Tim Rice 1971 rock opera centering on the last week of Jesus’ life was never intended to proselytize, but to contemplate the man behind the stories. Special focus on Judas and his view of Jesus and the direction of his ministry, as well as the inclusion of modern references guaranteed that, like Jesus himself, the Broadway show and later movie would get plenty of attention but not always adoration.
Signature has chosen this dynamic show to close its 2016/17 season as a cap to its “tradition of reimagining musicals in…. intimate playing spaces.” Mostly it works, but there is one serious drawback: Sound.
When the Webber-Rice team first presented the concept of “Jesus Christ Superstar”, it was in album form – not even a stage show. As a rock opera, (all dialogue is “sung through”), one would suppose that words are important. Being able to hear and understand those words is equally important.
The Max Theatre within Signature isn’t a large space, and with a live orchestra, singers in head mics, and sometimes standing microphones added, sound levels were frequently enough to blast one out of the seat. Ari Wilford as Judas Iscariot was perhaps the worst offender in this category for shrieking his songs. Add a tortured electric guitar to the mix and there were some truly unbearable moments. Note to Mr. Wilford: volume does not automatically equate to emotion. But I still have a shred of hearing left in my right ear. Maybe he wasn’t trying hard enough.
Seriously. Orchestrated songs sung by the full ensemble – “What’s the Buzz”, “Everything’s Alright”, “This Jesus Must Die” to name a few could just as well have been nursery rhymes for all the clarity of the lyrics. Neither my companion for the evening nor I could understand a word, and I did see one gentleman fumbling with his hearing aid. This incoherence means that the show must depend on an audience of people who have seen it before. I can’t imagine that lyricist Tim Rice would be pleased.
Nevertheless, there are some positive notes.
The cast, all volcanic energy, rocks Karma Camp’s athletic choreography, and under the direction of Joe Calarco, still maintains individual focus about who they are and what they’re doing. I suspect there were many cast discussions concerning what the person of Jesus must have meant for the apostles, the ordinary citizen of Israel, and the Jewish leaders. Playing Jesus is no easy role, but Nicholas Edwards hits the right emotional notes. In a play focused on his humanity, Jesus’ strengths, troubles, and doubts are made clear.
When the shouting of songs pauses, there are some lovely respites. Natascia Diaz as Mary Magdalene shows off a voice of crystal purity in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. Bobby Smith as Pontius Pilate meditating on what it all means in “Pilate’s Dream” delivers the force but not the reflective quality of the song.
One number that is easily understood and communicates all the power written into it is “The Temple” where the lame, halt, and blind crawl to Jesus for release. “King Herod’s Song” on the other hand, is memorable from the movie for its over-the-top sacrilege and cabaret-style revelry, but here, with Sherri Edelen as King Herod, comes off as muddied. “Could We Start Again Please?” with Mary, Peter and the apostles is one of the beautiful moments of the night.
In keeping with the modern approach written into it, Frank Labovitz’s costuming is “college kid” bordering on “boho” – except for Pilate and Calaphas (Thomas Simpson) in business suits.
Luciana Stecconi’s strong scene design immerses the experience on a thrust stage in the configuration of a white, marble-like cross. Movable white benches do multiple duty in the garden of Gethsemane, at the Last Supper, in Herod’s villa – even as the Cross itself. And the four entrances, one at each end, suggest biblical-era tombs while projected images around the doors add important information about the location of each scene.
Calarco has chosen to update the show with projections of the decidedly un-Christian atrocities visited on the world in our present age – nothing that should surprise anyone.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” was never intended to be a vehicle on any side of the religious debate, but a thoughtful questioning and examination of a life that has mystified, gratified, and inspired millions. However, in its quest to create an experience of power and immediacy, Signature has sacrificed clarity to thunderous volume and energy to exhausting pace. The good news is that it wouldn’t take a miracle to fix it.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
Want to go?
What: “Jesus Christ Superstar”
Where: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va.
Call: (703) 820-9771 or visit www.SigTheatre.org
Playing through July 2