Since the original album’s release in 1970, Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera depicting the political and personal struggles between Judas and Jesus, has been greatly admired. There has been a movie, several Broadway productions, numerous national tours, and a great number of foreign productions, and the show has become a standard for Civic Light Operas around America.
The problem for me — and I have performed in the show twice — is that it never fully works as a stage show despite the great music. Nevertheless, audiences have flocked to it, some because it is Christian, others because it is rock, and have generally loved it.
The most successful stage production was the one done first in London, where it ran for eight years. This is not all that surprising, given England’s penchant for controversial, even political theatre. A rock version of the Jesus story certainly challenged the stodgy Church of England. The actual theology, however, was and remains questionable on a number of counts. For example, it leaves out the Resurrection, it depicts the Jews as being responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion, and the real Mary Magdalene was not a whore as she is presented in the show.
Today the piece is more accepted as a kind of Pentecostal retelling of the story, in a musical idiom sometimes found in modern services. The musical is now having a revival at the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities. Let me state that the audience seemed to like it very much, but I found the show lacking in many respects. I found the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene confusing. She sings, “I don’t know how to love him,” yet it is quite evident that they have a sexual relationship. Jesus and Judas spend the evening nearly coming to fisticuffs, so it’s hard to relate to the idea of Jesus being a man of peace and Judas being his best friend who merely feels that Jesus has gone “off message.”
Though the lead performers, Eric Kunze (Jesus) and Josh Tower (Judas), had good rock voices, I missed the passion and love I experienced when I saw Ted Neely as Jesus and Carl Anderson as Judas. Karole Foreman had a good voice as Mary, but her songs work better when sung simply, without any American Idol flourishes. The standout in the cast was Kevin Bailey as Pilate. He created a powerful and original version of this conflicted man. Also, the show really picked up with the lively performance by Harrison White as Herod, and stayed lively until the end. If only the rest had been as engaging.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center through May 10th.