January 21, 2005

Jesus Christ, why are you such a Superstar?

The Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber version of Jesus, played by Eric Kunze, swings from elevated esplanades in summer beach garb. JC dons a pair of American khakis and an open-buttoned off-white shirt—looking much like the disgruntled Parisian who's survived a blustery winter only to discover the wonders of springtime in the Riviera. Meanwhile, 11 of his 12 disciples don the overtly "skater" look: army boots and jeans, slicked-back hair, and skater gloves. Picture Emilio Estevez in Outsiders, cross him with Patrick Swayze, and you've got half the cast from Jesus Christ Superstar, playing from January 18 to 23 at Chicago's Ford Center.

The Swayze-Estevez amalgam aptly describes nearly all of the 12 disciples, save for Lawrence Clayton's Judas, who—dressed smartly in black slacks and a black leather jacket—sets himself apart from the docility of the remaining 11. I never realized how incredibly unassuming and submissive the disciples were until director Kevin Moriarty revealed their stupidity in this production. Worse than simple yes-men, they're major sycophants, nodding their heads in unison at every decree that rolls over Jesus' lips, completely unaware of the treachery about to unfold. Like synchronized props, they prance and twist their way through the two-act show, existing only because Judas, a fellow disciple, had to come from somewhere.

Clayton's Judas, whose evil intentions go undetected by the imbecilic 11, keeps the musical together at the moments when the 11 seem poised to hijack it in a scream-induced gust of pandemonium and flashy dancing. Clayton moves resolutely, singing the inauspicious echo to Jesus's ballads of positivism, lurking in the shadows during nearly all of Kunze's soliloquies.

Actually, it's not so much that Clayton lurks in the shadows; he is the shadow. As JC sings of hope and forgiveness—the stage devoid of all supporting cast—Judas stands silhouetted ten feet above on the elevated catwalk, leaning against the railing and glaring. As the musical progresses, Judas emerges out of the shadows into the sinister hands of the high priests. One gets the impression that this piece could very well have been about him, as the piece depicts him going through the tumultuous desperation, agony, and self-loathing that Christ goes through (but with less-enviable results). Clayton returns after his compulsory self-hanging to belt out the "Superstar" theme with a trio of "soul girls"—all dressed aptly in bright Mephistophelian red.

Of the previous portrayals of Christ—running the gamut from the ridiculous (Life of Brian) to the decidedly somber (Mel Gibson's Passion) to the near defamatory (The Last Temptation of Christ), Rice and Webber's Superstar undoubtedly succeeds in catering to a more moderate audience. We get a taste of Gibson's "tortured hero"—as Christ pulls off a Platoon-like death scene after a round of beatings—and a taste of Monty Python ridiculousness, as arch-nemesis Herod waltzes on stage with his name in Vegas lights flashing from the ceiling, shrieking out "Jeeezus!" We also get a dash of borderline sacrilege, as Jesus nonchalantly hunkers down at the last supper with the unleavened bread and chalice of wine and nonchalantly muses, "This could be my body, I guess…and this one could be my blood, right?" Sure.

Of particular interest in the choreography was the portrayal of the "Crucify!"-chanting Jewish mob. Moriarty chose to dress them in black—situating them symbolically on the side of Annas and Caiaphas, the Jesus-hating high priests. They remain faceless throughout, mired in the shadows, with their faces drawn insidiously toward the floor and their heads covered with downward-tilted black gangster hats.

When Pontius Pilate, having determined no wrongdoing on JC's part, orders him flogged, the shadowy horde carries out the order themselves. Each of the actors dips their hands in a pot of blood, takes a running leap at a haggard Jesus, and distributes one of 39 wallops to his lower torso. The act symbolically allows Pilate to wash his hands of Jesus's death, while the horde gathers in the aftermath of the pummeling to gloat, the blood of their victim still glistening on their outstretched hands. Aside from the ascension scene, this demonstrated the most powerful imagery of the musical.

If anything, the audience walked away from the piece with the conviction that the director wanted to blow them away with sound and lighting effects. Judging by the full house on their feet at the performance's end, he probably accomplished his goal. Having just seen a smart piece of work, I felt no other option than to give the piece a good, healthy ovation. With ears ringing as if I had just left a Metallica concert, and spots still dancing before my eyes, I made my way over to the #6 stop (a mere 50 paces away) and headed home.