Jesus Christ Superstar a Musical Powerhouse at Central Community Theatre, but Oy, Those Schmattes

Are you what they say you are?
Are you what they say you are?
The Really Useful Group Limited; original design by Ernie Cefalu

A lot goes into Curtains' decisions about which plays to review for you. But when I opened my program for Central Community Theatre's production of Jesus Christ Superstar and saw that Robin Vining plays guitar in the orchestra, I became Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction: "Shit, negro! That's all you had to say!"

Music Director Debbie Jo Davey and the rest of her talented ensemble can confidently hose down and go to breakfast after the curtain calls.

With the Valley's most solid instrumental component imaginable and three rangy, evocative, antimatter-generating vocal leads (Edgar Torrens as Jesus, Kyle Bennett as Judas, and Shandi Mortenson as Mary Magdalene), this production imparts all the awe and power inherent in the best score Andrew Lloyd Webber will ever write (Tim Rice, while he whelped some classics here, has only continued to grow as a lyricist) -- both as a musical spectacle and as a mind-blowing sociopolitical and spiritual epic.

You might want to close your eyes, though.

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This is a demanding show. Community theaters don't produce it terribly often. It breaks my heart that CCT had the hardest parts completely nailed and couldn't muster the resources or discipline or whatever to bring all the production elements into line with the quality of (most of) the sound of this almost-completely-sung play. I still enjoyed it, and I think you might, too, especially if you're a JCS virgin, or if you've only been able to hear, sing, and/or play it and never seen a stage presentation.

Maybe it's just me, but the concept of incorporating some anachronisms and contemporary touches to reinforce the modern/timeless "cult of celebrity" portion of the script's theme does not include a small dance corps in camo capris and pale blue bandannas capering in front of a crowd in Sunday-school-storybook homespun cassocks and other assorted bed linens.

The Teva-style sandals I could live with. The horror makeup on the Pharisees I cannot. Acting -- heard of it? That's a great way to distinguish the villains. Caiphas and his priests also had identical robes and big ugly cabochon-studded bling, so since some misguided person kept the lights on, we could have picked them out that way, too.

Then there were posthumous Judas' sparkly backup dancers in his big famous hit solo, "Superstar." They should have backed hella farther up, because they pulled his focus and ruined the number. I feel for costume designer Deb Schmalz. Many of her pieces were individually quite nice but didn't go together or were bad for a particular scene or the way it was staged. All the pieces were in place -- they just weren't all from the same puzzle. (There was more, but we don't have all day.)

And then my usual vague premonition about the efforts of the ensemble in a huge show in which everyone was dying to play a lead came horrifyingly true. Although the chorus knows their parts almost entirely, and they all sing in key, these cast members, when not spotlighted (figuratively, thank God), sang rather quietly, exhibited the emotional range of a phylum other than Chordata, and, in the case of at least one plucky young man from whom I couldn't tear my eyes, chose one sincere gesture to perform in the background of each scene and repeated it -- the very same gesture -- again and again until blackout.

This production, I must stress once more, is miles better than most bad community theater musicals you or I could (and have) run into. It's actually not very bad at all -- for example, it moves right along, everybody hits their cues cleanly and confidently, and people who sing better than they act (as my companion noticed), are not trying to act any better than they actually can. Which, for me, works.

JCS is a freaking powerful piece of theater, even now that the novelty's worn off and we've seen many alternate, exploring looks at Christ's life and nature. I was loving the music and crying and thinking about our people and their government, and how a rebel's followers can be just as crazy and dangerous as his oppressors, just the way the play wants me to. So I think you might want to go, really, but I couldn't in good conscience refrain from giving you the whole story.

Speaking of the whole story, here's a rather interesting New Yorker article that couldn't be more timely, about the politicohistorical sources of the aspects of Jesus we see presented in the Gospels, and, just to balance things out, a church pamphlet about how Satanic this play is and why you should stay away.

Jesus Christ Superstar continues through Sunday, May 30, at Central Community Theatre on the north side of the campus of Central United Methodist Church, 1875 North Central Avenue. Tickets are $20. Order here or call 602-357-3247.


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