Jesus Is Cool: Strong on Style, Short on Storytelling

By James E. Trainor III
Photos by Jackie Jensen at ICPixx

Coralville – Near the end of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas sings: “If you’d come today, you would have reached a whole nation, Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication.” For City Circle’s production, director Elizabeth Tracey takes this quote as her jumping-off point. What we see is a Superstar that is unapologetically modern: excited young people swarming Jesus snapping pictures, police in full riot gear, Caiaphas and his smarmy cronies in business meetings. The result is a concept which, while faithfully executed by cast and crew, fits the text like a second-hand suit, landing solidly in places, but hanging loose and awkwardly in others.

The cast is great. Rob Merrit’s Judas is heartfelt and well thought-out, he has endless energy, and plays well with the score. Esack Grueskin’s Jesus is quite charismatic, with a very soulful voice, and he holds forth with a surprising subtle wisdom when correcting his followers. Hannah Loeb has a wonderful voice, and her Mary carries the emotional scenes with tension and grace. The ensemble holds solid throughout the piece, working well with each other and finding lots of effective little moments.

The core conceit, that of Jesus’s band of revolutionaries being uppity middle class kids who need to be put down by media moguls, seems to muddy the text more often than it clarifies it. To be fair, it is a lot of fun, and it looks great. Patrick Dulaney’s choreography and Emily Christoffersen’s costumes hit the mark more often than not. However, a lot of the objective work is unclear because the stakes are very different in this new setting. This causes some problems in the first act, where Judas’s fears are pretty much in line with Caiaphas’s: Jesus is going to lead the rabble to Jerusalem and bring the Roman army down on all their heads. Judas sings “it’s all gone sour;” Caiaphas prophecies “death and destruction, because of one man.” But the dread and danger in the text doesn’t come to life for much of the production, so these lines are sort of sung past.

One moment does transcend, and does what only an anachronistic setting can really do with a historical story: shows us how much everything has stayed the same. In “Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem,” the apostles storm the stage with machine guns, ready to take the fight to the capital. In the midst of the excited celebration, the youngest disciples runs on, is given a gun by one of the apostles, is shown how to use it, and ends the number pointing it directly at the audience. It’s a chilling moment, as we recognize what the desperation of the oppressed has led them to, and at the same time recognize that they’re doomed.

Other stagings are less clear, and while it’s interesting to see Tracey take risks and challenge more traditional interpretations of the text, I’m not sure what she’s replacing them with. In “The Temple,” a huddle of gyrating teens take ecstasy and “roll” (get it?) “on up” in the Temple. Jesus is uncharacteristically angered, and throws them out, which comes off as strange, because the moneylenders are replaced with partygoers. Is hedonism as bad to Jesus as greed? Perhaps we’re meant to think it is.

The most troubling moment is “Superstar” itself, the title song in which Judas sums up his doubts and frustrations. This one is always a little metatheatrical, because the character is coming back from the dead and confronting Jesus from a modern perspective. In this production, however, he comes straight from Hell, complete with an angelic choir dressed in red instead of white. The irony is interesting, but the implications are a bit troubling: is doubt itself the bad guy of this piece? Obviously, nobody’s listening to Jesus’s message, or the crucifixion wouldn’t have been necessary. But Superstar centers heavily on believers’ ambivalence and need for answers, and this staging seems to suggest that such questioning is dangerous or immoral.

The ending is done very effectively and seems to bring the show back on-message. After the crucifixion is done, Jesus’s followers lovingly carry him offstage, and the screens onstage, where there were all sorts of flashy tricks before, simply show some of Jesus’s most powerful statements. The statement is clear: now people are finally listening. And the simplicity, to counter the “superstar” frenzy of before, is really touching.

All in all, I found the concept rather distracting, because the story often got lost – the great costumes and clever set pieces came off as so much window dressing at times. A radical setting change is not bad in itself, but it’s problematic when a director chooses that instead of a strong thematic focus. The message of this production is muddied by its approach, but as far as I can tell, it seems to be that people are foolish and self-centered and do what the media tells them. This seems oddly cynical for a story about the most famous revolutionary of all time. I’m hesitant to accept the message that “nothing has changed” when the oppressed are not only privileged and educated but have the means to get their message out in the palm of their hands. However, at its heart, Superstar is not a parable, but a rock opera, and a very good one at that. What’s lost here in storytelling is made up for in spectacle and style.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs through April 14 at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts. More information here.

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