Jesus Signal

JCS 2008

When one attends a production of Jesus Christ Superstar it is a fundamental requirement that the actor portraying ‘Jesus’ is good. It is, after all, Jesus Christ Superstar, as much as I would like to convince the world it is truly a play about Judas. Being privileged to watch and listen to Ted Neeley as ‘Jesus’ is about as good as it gets. I couldn’t begin to praise the quality of his performance even now after all these years. It seems as though he embodies the typical idealized version of Jesus (sometimes a little too much so!!). But now, that said, the difficulty with a production in having such a strong Jesus, and with so much focus therefore being directed towards Jesus, is that the remaining characters lose a lot in the mix. In this production it makes matters worse that we are given an apathetic group of supporters in the Apostles, Mary Magdalene, Judas and the Sanhedrin. I would argue that only Pilate and Herod seemed to genuinely care about their roles in the overall picture. Since Herod’s meagre part is but meant to provide a mere moment of comic relief, it was only Pilate who showed any true authenticity in his part. As for the rest….

In this adaptation, Simon, who should be portrayed as a full-fledged bordering on insane religious zealot, appeared about as capable of leading open revolt against the Roman overlords as would the West Side Story Sharks and Jets dare start a gang turf war in present day Harlem. *rolls eyes* Mary Magdalene’s torturous and tempestuous relationship with Jesus (and Judas, for that matter) was tamed down to a High School Musical PG-13 version. The Apostles were clueless (as all good apostles should be) and VERY VERY PRETTY (read: distractingly good looking and well built). But they were devoid of all faith and intention – it seemed as though they followed Jesus not for his philosophy or his substance but for the copious amounts of free wine and the communal partying that he could offer them. Yes, these Apostles were merely 1st century frat boys. You can see this particularly in Peter – when informed that he would deny Jesus, the expected response of refusal, anger, even violence is noticeably lacking. This Peter’s actual reaction was more like… ‘duh…did someone just call my name?? o_O’

This indifference is tolerable at best in the aforementioned characters but when an apathetic Judas comes into play, it renders the entire play virtually impotent. The Judas character is, for all intents and purposes, a mirror for the Jesus character: two men who are suffering a crisis of conscience, questioning their beliefs and their destiny – witness specifically ‘Gethsemane’ and ‘Heaven on their Minds’ where these concerns are so vividly expressed. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s (and please remember this is NOT my take on the Passion but ALW’s) Jesus and Judas make it very evident that, although fated to their purpose through God’s divine game plan, it is their own free will that determines their ultimate actions. There is double determinism at work here. Without free will, ‘Gethsemane’ would not impart the heart wrenching qualities that it so achieves – watching Jesus struggle as he doubts, clings to and treasures the very last moments of his humanity. It is essential therefore that Judas too is able to experience and express this vast range of emotions that assault him during this agonizing week of the Passion. But to make Judas apathetic towards Jesus negates the very fiber of realism that holds this play together. An apathetic Judas would have walked away from Jesus upon the finale note of ‘Heaven on their Minds’ having reached the conclusion that yes, it has all gone sour. Without that Jesus/Judas affection, there is no concern for a betrayal – it merely becomes a task assigned by the Sanhedrin, one that Judas wouldn’t bother to question and certainly not one that he would regret nor second guess so much that he would feel a guilt worthy of dying for. There is a strong strong pull for Judas to Jesus and without it, Judas’ passionate and volatile songs all become so tragically shallow. I won’t discredit the actor who portrayed Judas – when he sang (rather than yelled) his voice was certainly able to the task. But it did seem as though he was there specifically to sing ‘Superstar’, which he did, quite admirably, in his own little James-Brown-wannebe way. Even that song though missed the point – why after death, would Judas still care enough to question these things?? :-(


I suppose I should not end this review on a bad note - again Ted Neeley was great, aside from the moments when he slipped into being TOO Jesus-like. Pilate was also quite good. The staging of the play itself was more traditional which is always a good thing as some modern adaptations can be a little scary. There were some very funny moments like when they performed 'The Temple' and displayed as a tapestry an image of a giant Roman coin...Me: 'WTF?? That's not Tiberius...I don't even think that emperor was born yet". *LOL*  And then later on during the resurrection scene, again a tapestry is shown, this time displaying the image on the Shroud of Turin..."Me: OMG...Jacques de Molay"...*Templar fangirl squee* (OK I realize no one has a clue what I am talking about unless you know me, but really it is me)

So, like all productions of JCS, it was not perfect. I doubt I will ever consider one to be perfect since I have such a precise vision of how this play should be performed. Although the 2004 North American tour was near flawless, I believe that, given the funds and the appropriate actors, Jeremy Hutton would be the one director to get it right because, even in his meager young theatre version you could see how he understood the play as it should be – the themes, the relationships, story, the history…

Until then…well, you can bet I’ll be there, waiting and watching whenever I’m so fortunate to have the pleasure to see and hear it again. I love this musical – in all its various incarnations - and I can’t begin to thank Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice for the infinite joy it gives me!!

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