Christ gets rock-opera treatment

 Kiss me, son of God
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  September 19, 2013

GOD COMPLEX Jesus is a Superstar at Portland Players. | Photo by Audra Hatch

The hit musical Jesus Christ Superstar, an all-lyric rock opera rendition of Christ’s last week alive, premiered in 1971, four years after Hair and in the same year as Godspell — around the time when a certain countercultural contingent was starting to redirect itself toward Jesus. And so to frame the show as a hippies-versus-authorities conflict, as director Jamie Lupien Swenson does for her very creditable Portland Players production, is more than just true to the show’s spirit; the idea is implicit in the play’s very cultural genesis.

Lest one confuse one’s Jesus musicals: While Godspell focuses on Christ’s parables and lessons, Superstar treats the culminating politics and interpersonal dynamics of a movement led by a charismatic but tortured Jesus (David Aaron Van Duyne), part pacifist revolutionary, part cult leader. His flower-child followers, carrying “Make Love Not War” and “Stop Roman Oppression” signs, are good-willed but shallow and star-struck, while Caiaphas (Mark Barrasso), Annas (John Ambrose), and the other Jewish priests, in G-man dark suits and medallions, are out to get him by any means possible.

Their eventual means, Judas (Jason Phillips), is seething at the direction of Jesus’s movement as soon as the show opens — this “king” and “God” stuff is drawing the wrong kind of attention, he fears, and also isn’t thrilled about Jesus’s association with Mary (Michelle Perry, watchful and sweet-voiced), a prostitute. Phillips’s Judas and Van Duyne’s Jesus, both excellent and with powerful voices, pose a great contrast: Judas is burly and darker than the tall, slender Jesus of reddish-gold hair and beard, who positively glows in his white clothes. The earthy, practical Judas, who in black and a bandana looks more like a Hell’s Angel, is frantic with rage and nervous motion, while even in Jesus’s frequent bouts of anguish, there is poise and something like grace.

Such attention to gesture is important in a play that’s all song, and under Swenson’s direction, along with Victoria Perreault’s fine ensemble choreography, the movement onstage is rich: bodies crossing in staggered waves, hands and limbs rising and falling in haloes around Jesus, the flinching sympathy spasms of the ensemble’s torsos as Jesus is flogged. Quieter moments, too, are beautifully conceived. During the lovely little balm of a song “Everything’s Alright,” sung to angsty Jesus by Mary, the apostles are sitting about the stage in small groups, engaged in the small but comforting motions of sharing food as they offer up the occasional dulcet harmony. The sweetness suffusing this song and scene buoys much of the show, and is one of pleasures of this very capable and feeling production.

As we approach the show’s end, pace and spectacle escalate; a crazy-flamboyant Herod (Justin Stebbins — wow!) dances an acid-nightmare ragtime with his girls (a hell of a fun number) as he interrogates Jesus, and scenes begin to be lit by fades between blue, yellow, and red gels (a little distracting). During this fraught buildup to the crucifixion, especially during Judas’s last encounters with Jesus, a few slower or longer-held moments would help us better feel the agony and complexity of the men’s relationship and final break — particularly Judas’s Last Supper admission of betrayal, and the last moment between them, surrounded by the authorities, in the Garden of Gethsemane.

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