It always rains on the second weekend of July. It is as if the heavens try to tell me, “Don’t drag your family all the way to Michigan to pick blueberries; stop at a farm stand twenty miles across the Illinois-Indiana state line and buy the fruits of someone else’s labor.” So every year, full of the finest intentions, I get no further east than Hobart or Portage before the rain starts and I acquiesce to the will of heaven.
This rainy second weekend of July, I took a second journey into northwest Indiana, just a few blocks across the state line to Theatre at the Center in Munster for Jesus Christ Superstar. Wherever I may be, it always rains on Easter weekend, too, so I anticipated a double downpour.
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Irrespective of the stormy skies, I had my apprehensions about this show. Theatre at the Center has recently done some outstanding productions of what I thought were terrible musicals. Jesus Christ Superstar is a profoundly great musical (opera, really), but is very easy to do poorly.
Whether by means divine or by design, this production of Jesus Christ Superstar completely redeems Theatre at the Center.
From Scenic Designer Christopher Ash’s Prairie-style warehouse set to Costume Designer Nikki Delhomme’s glorious blended anachronisms, the look of this production is at once opulent and Spartan. Walls become stained-glass windows; stained-glass windows become screens for a dumbshow. The requisite flower-child garb is worn, but so are the motleys of demented clowns and priestly garments that resemble chess pieces.
Oh, Jesus. Max Quinlan’s steady, reassuring tenor conveyed a Jesus more troubled than Vincent Van Gogh, more resolute than Captain Chesley Sullenberger.
I have always believed that Mary Magdelene, rather than Jesus, is the soul of Jesus Christ Superstar; Audrey Billings could not be more soulful as Mary Magdelene. As the whore who does not have sex, she is sexy without ever being whorish. Mary Magdelene’s sexiness fuels the rift between Judas and Jesus.
Jesus never does anything untoward, of course, but for Jesus Christ Superstar to work, the audience has to understand that Judas is working from the assumption that no man could ever resist her whether she is trying to tempt him or not. Billings consoles the inconsolable Jesus as a mother would a babe. Her voice is pure and sweet and perfect for “Everything’s Alright.”
Judas is not portrayed as a bad man. He is a leader with a noble agenda, who does not truly comprehend the weight of his actions until it is too late – like Alec Guinness’s Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Joe Tokarz utilizes an impressive range of singing styles to carry Judas from the heights of zeal, through rage and betrayal, to the pit of despair.
Pontius Pilate’s first appearance singing “Pilate’s Dream” is clearly meant to change the tone of the show. The timbre of Larry Adams’s baritone immediately captivates the audience. He is never less than sympathetic, even when he is being awful.
Theatre at the Center’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar is far more than an eloquent exuding of pathos. There are even a few wonderful Easter eggs hidden in this production; for example, there are a couple of blatant references to Rob Zombie. I may be stretching it to point out that Caiaphas, played sonorous and sinister by Jeff Diebold, was made up to look very much like Rob Zombie (who better to represent such an embodiment of evil?). The Rob Zombie influence on the portrayal of King Herod, however, is more straightforward.
“King Herod’s Song” in Jesus Christ Superstar is like “Beauty School Dropout” in Grease: the actor appears only in that number and a wise director will bring in a ringer. Stacey Flaster is a wise director for bringing in the brilliant Stephen M. Genovese, Artistic Director of BoHo Theatre.
Genovese played Herod like Captain Spaulding, not like Groucho’s Captain Spaulding in Animal Crackers, but like Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding in the Rob Zombie-directed exploitation horror films House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. Genovese’s Herod is an appalling vision in full clown regalia.
He is menace incarnate. He is frothy and demented and repulsive. He is a whipped cream pie in the face with shards of broken glass in the bottom. Backed by a chorus of near-demonic clowns and donning a cockeyed crown four sizes too large, Genovese makes me want to sleep with the lights on if I can ever sleep again.
This uproarious, unsettling interpretation of “King Herod’s Song” may be the best single number I have ever seen on the musical theatre stage. Genovese very nearly stole the show.
The crucifixion trumps any scene-stealing razzmatazz, however splendid.
Back to Max Quinlan hanging off the cross, his hands balanced on brackets that cast shadows so like nails had been driven through his palms. He called out for his mother, for something to slake his thirst, for answers about why he must endure the burden alone. Audience members, of all faiths and none, wept openly at this god-man’s very human anguish.
Director/Choreographer Stacey Flaster has brought an outstanding, inventive, transformative production of Jesus Christ Superstar to light at Theatre at the Center. DO NOT MISS this show.
After the curtain call and the deservedly long standing-ovation, I scurried through the rain to my car and drove due west back to Illinois. The western skies opened up with tall, fierce forks of lightning and the Earth shook with thunder, as if the heavens were determined to continue that long ovation a while longer.