Given that Jesus Christ Superstar is in itself a unique and artistic depiction of Jesus’ last week of life, it’s no surprise that CU’s production company wanted to continue the theme and add its own elements of art. The problem was that the artistic liberties they took distracted from the meaning and beauty of the play. However, the show was largely saved by the sheer vigor and talent of the actors performing on Thursday night in the University Theater.
When Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote Jesus Christ Superstar in 1970, they created a rock opera filled with over-the-top characters and catchy refrains, sparking controversy with their liberal interpretations of Jesus’ last week of life.
CU’s theater company took this opportunity and ran with it to make something creative and different. They put their own spin on things, and while they deserve credit for that, the quirky interpretations were sometimes overwhelming.
Satya Chavez’s immediate entrance as Judas was the first hint that the audience could expect more surprises. A powerhouse singer with charisma, she had the chops to play the role. Having a woman take on the role was unconventional for the sake of being unconventional, but we forgave her as her undeniable stage presence added a charm to Judas, making him appropriately complicated.
The microphone couldn’t handle her power, however, and it colored the whole show. The high notes were physically painful to hear as her vocal chords tested the microphone’s limits. Given her frequent presence on stage, it was hard to not be off-put by the technological butchering of the pieces.
Adding more technological offenses to the list, the production used the blank black walls on either side of the stage to project various images and words throughout the show. Sometimes artsy and deep and other times cheesy and resembling a power-point presentation, the depictions were distracting and detracted from the meaning of the play.
Only when Pontius Pilate was hesitating about Jesus’ fate did the repeated projection of the word “crucify” in blood red chaotically convey the panic felt by all of his disciples, actually adding value to the story.
Beyond the visual choices of the producers, there was also a seeming hesitance about the tone of the story. Clearly a story of struggle, betrayal and death, taking the tone in a dark direction would have been perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, the whimsical nature of the melodies and the charismatic characters could lend justification to taking the story down a lighter path.
Apparently, a concrete decision was never reached. Humor was oddly placed in between dark moments. King Herod, played by Sergio King, was decked out in a sparkly, strapless unitard and his number was glitzy and wonderful, but completely disconnected from the context that surrounded him. Rather than serving to lighten the mood when events turned sour, the humor seemed to be randomly thrown in for the sake of whimsy.
That whimsy was exaggerated by the fact that the story was devoid of time and spatial context, but this time in a good way. The costumes seemed to come from every decade since the ‘70s and the set was both archaically simplistic and intricately futuristic. This was an artistic choice to get on board with.
Beyond the religious context of the story, broken down to its basic elements, Jesus Christ Superstar is a tale of love, friendship, betrayal and loss, elements of life that everyone can relate to. These are not things constrained by time or place, and in that sense, the story is timeless, as the costumes and set conveyed.
The actors took full advantage of the tools given to them, using the clothing, the props and the lighting to dramatize the already dramatic and hang back when necessary. It also didn’t hurt that the whole cast was immensely talented.
Chavez wasn’t the only one who gave her character everything she had. Pontius Pilate, played by Nathan Ellgren, gave off a Matrix-y vibe with his slicked back ponytail and long leather coat, and he belted lyrics like the perfect complicated villain. His internal struggle appeared on his face as a mixture of pity, hate and confusion directed toward Jesus.
Also playing an antagonist, Melanie Schultz was Caiaphas. Her retro hair and deep powerful voice, combined with hip-swaying sass, made her the villain that everyone loved to hate. Even knowing the role she would play in Jesus’ demise, it was hard to get enough of her.
The underused Madison Levin, playing Mary Magdalene, had a smooth, sultry voice that served the practical purpose of soothing both Jesus and the audience, threading the deeply human aspect of loving someone throughout the story.
Appropriately, Jesus was the standout, played by Tanner Kaler, the only actor who made you forget you were watching a play put on by college students. His earnest pain made us ache for Jerusalem when he did, and flinch with every snap of the whip. His voice was rich and deep, and his whole body was involved in every emotion.
All mishaps and poor choices aside, it was clear from the seamless presentation and the dynamics between the cast members that everyone was excited to be a part of it. While the audience left a little confused by the interpretation, it was hard not to leave reveling in the joy the that actors radiated.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Maggie Wagner at firstname.lastname@example.org.