Jesus of Nazareth, the historical man and radical upstart, probably had no plans to become famous, and given what we know, fame would’ve cramped his style. But a superstar he became, and for the first time in many years, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar is being produced on a professional Portland stage with Michael Streeter’s current version at Post5.
I spoke with Streeter on the phone, and he said he’d coveted his older brother’s vinyl copy of Jesus Christ Superstar when he was a kid. Nobody would produce the musical, so it was first a hit in 1970 as a concept album in the United States. Lloyd Webber noted that, by being limited to that format, he and Rice cut all the extras and fat from the normal progression of a stage musical. Eventually it became a staple onstage, too, running for more than 700 performances on Broadway beginning in 1971. The productions Streeter has seen over the years resembled a church Passion Play, and with his, he wanted to get to the heart of the matter, much as the original album did for the composers.
Jesus Christ Superstar is a musical giant and has rocking good tunes. The lyrics are clever, and the songs easy enough to sing along to: the seeds of what would become a powerhouse career for Weber and Rice are evident.
Streeter has put on a good revival and some show-stopping entertainment, and the timing couldn’t be better to look at the cult of celebrity and the people who surround it. The musical’s focus is on Judas Iscariot, the famed disciple who crossed to the other side. Streeter chose wisely to have Ithica Tell, that force of nature, fill the role. Tell is usually given the lead for her elegant, easy, and well-crafted force of delivery. But, as the anti-hero in Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas requires some ambiguity to catch that blindside love for justice that can take people down the wrong path. Tell takes her Judas to a higher level, looking often from the sidelines and making judgments on the cacophony around Jesus. And the role gives her a rare chance to show off her singing voice, with its multi-range complexity, finish, and pop-music edge. Just as with her speaking voice, it catches you in its directness and hits you with emotional surprise. When Tell roars out the name “Jesus” in her solo Heaven on Their Minds, we feel the soul-crunch of Judas caught between a rock and a hard place.
No production can stand on the talents of one person, and Ernie Lijoi’s Jesus proves the point. He’s soft, with a twinkle in his eye and a hypersense of malleability in his compassion for all things great and small. Streeter strips this Jesus of the iconic robes we’ve seen in so many images: he’s rooted, earthen, a Hebrew in simple linen with a bit of the Jew-fro and prayer shawl hung about his shoulders. Lijoi’s Jesus is a tranquil lake until Gethsemane, one of the hardest numbers in the show. As he cries “Peter, John, James” in the opening lines, the iron-ore strength of one man trying to change the system shines through, and the easiness of empathy mistaken for weakness turns to heartbreak for the moment.
Lloyd Webber said he’d begun work on Jesus Christ Superstar when he was 15, before the cultural combustion of rock-musical and biblical themes at the time: Hair, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, Tommy, Godspell. All deal with inspired savants who are challenged by the status quo, making a personal reflection of radical kids at the time. Hair premiered off-off Broadway in 1967 and included soon-to-be famous artists such as Meatloaf and Diane Keaton. It set the tone for a Peter Pan sort of troupe, with Lost Boys out to make a better world, but who in their youth and exuberance fail to make strategic plans, and the real sense begins at the end of the musical, with the fallout. Hair writers James Rado and Jerome Ragni depended on seasoned Broadway veteran Galt McDermott to sculpt the sounds for a traditional audience. Their collaboration brought the culture of the kids to the stage, and their justified sense of outrage with war, social limitations, and lack of understanding. Hair is a beautiful time piece that celebrates the ’60s counterculture without criticism, and in that sense makes Jesus Christ Superstar the answer song. There are numbers in Jesus Christ Superstar that quote Hair. What’s the Buzz from Superstar takes cues from the end of Walking in Space in Hair. The fuzz-guitar opening of Donna is updated as a prog-rock salute in the overture for Superstar.
A live band supports the cast at Post5, and just like a good symphony, brings the needed electric edge to the story via classic rock jams. We need their sonic angst to give a catharsis to the story whose ending we already know. There’s some Canned Heat, some Hendrix, some electric Richie Havens to the tunes. It’s a nice reminder of how much great music has come out of America and saturated all of our art forms. Brian Burger’s performance as Herod in King Herod’s Song stole the night for uplifting the audience with an almost drag-queen-like performance filled with charm, awakening, and wit.
Jesus Christ Superstar came out with perfect timing. Many people from the ’60s counterculture were dropping out, and the Media, Pennsylvania, revelations of COINTELPRO, a 1971 burglary and release of documents from an FBI office that revealed spying on and dirty tricks against dissident groups and foreshadowed the actions of Edward J. Snowden, gave them the data to know what they were up against. The idea of exposing the dirty secrets of spy agencies became so fashionable that Walter Matthau made a 1980 movie about it called Hopsotch. The ’70s became the Me Decade, and in a hot pursuit for meaning, many people joined groups such as EST, TDM, Esalen, and a whole host of other quasi-corporate enlightenment groups. Much like Hair was, Jesus Christ Superstar was ahead of its time. The musical looked into the nature of following one person for personal gain and challenged the idea through the character of Judas. We feel the burden of knowing in advance and cry when Claude Bukowski in Hair and Jesus in Superstar die, but for different reasons.
In Hair most of the women are lost or companions to men. In Superstar they become equals and the worship of idols with their relationships to women becomes the critique that Hair was missing. Streeter’s casting of Tell as Judas gives more subtext to the role of women in society and onstage. Jessica Tidd is Jesus’ wife, Mary Magdalene. She, too is usually cast in hard-edged roles, but is given room here to be a supportive companion and show her emotional breadth on a subtle and sweet range.
Repulsion for the old custom of stoning people to death has become almost hardwired into modern culture, an aversion made more meaningful by the biblical admonition that only “he that is without sin among you” should cast the first stone. With a black woman being killed, this Superstar pushes the stage envelope, and that is the stage’s most important role: to push and represent core feelings to the audience. When a production pushes into that territory, as this Superstar does, it forces us to walk out of the theater with a better and broader understanding of the person sitting next to us.
Michael Streeter’s Jesus Christ Superstar continues through August 20 at Post5 Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.