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Jesus Christ Superstar Gospel

a Musical
CATEGORY :
by Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics by Tim Rice, adaptation by Louis St. Louis

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 3288

SHOWING : January 14, 2009 - February 22, 2009

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

You know the story, you know the songs. Here's a spectacular new twist on an old favorite as a Gospel Choir backs up the stars of "Jesus Christ Superstar."


CAST & CREW LIST
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REVIEWS

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"Huh?"
by playgoer
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
NR
"Jesus Christ Superstar Gospel" contains some brilliant stage pictures. The end of act one, with coins being thrown to the stage from on high to (or at) Judas, who stands below, is one of them. The start of act two, with a tableau vivant of The Last Supper, is another. But the staging shows Susan V. Booth's inability to smoothly integrate sets into the play's action, which is a problem that has plagued every production I've ever seen her direct.

The set contains a suspended walkway with some stair-shaped gaps at either side. "Why the gaps?" the audience is left to wonder during act one. Then, in act two, Pilate descends from on high on the walkway, which lowers to the stage with stairs on either end. That's an effective use of the set, since a contrast has been already been established between those in power being "on high" (quite literally) and Jesus and the common people being below. Pilate is descending to interact with those beneath him. But how does Pilate exit at the end of the scene? Is he raised on high again? No. He walks offstage.

Later, after the walkway is raised up again, it's lowered once more in act two. Why? To get Chandra Currelly down to stage level. Chandra's terrific (as always), but in this show she's basically a glorified chorus member, and lowering the walkway for her seems totally without motivation. This is what I call a "huh?" moment -- a moment in a play when something happens with direction so muddled I can't figure out how I'm supposed to react.

Other things in the production tended to sour my appreciation of what overall is a very good show. The staging and choreography of the title number is so cheesy that it turned me off at what should have been a climax in act two. (The curtain call version of the number was much more enjoyable, I thought.)

I also have a casting problem with Darius deHaas as Jesus. With his goatee, he has a slightly Mephistophelian look. When he adds a sly glance in act one or a blank look (for most of the rest of the show), he doesn't counteract this slightly sinister appearance. I found the actor playing Pilate much more expressive and empathetic.

Oh, and the arrangement of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" loses the melody. Nicole Long sings it just fine, but the song gets lost somewhere in the embellishments of the arrangement. It's been turned into a diva moment and loses some of its dramatic impact as a result.

I guess this is one of those shows that's more fun to see than to consider afterward. My estimation of it has been decreasing steadily since I saw it over a week ago. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]
Praise the Ambivalence!
by Dedalus
Thursday, February 5, 2009
4.5
When I first heard of the “Jesus Christ Superstar Gospel” project, I had my doubts. Contrary to the popular advance opinion, I was not so sure it was such a good “fit.” After all, I always thought Gospel was all about Certainty and Celebration and Joy, whereas “Superstar” takes ambivalence and doubt as its focus. How can the tambourine-smacking, hand-clapping joyousness of a gospel choir adequately convey the levels of uncertainty and anger that are at the core of “Jesus Christ Superstar?”

Well, I have to say, I’m not sure if the Alliance’s incredible mounting of the show is true to the Gospel tropes it aspires to, but it certainly does justice to the source material, framing the songs in ways I’ve never heard, without losing that intriguing questioning quest that so attracted me to the original concept album. It impresses with its large-chorus belt-voice bravado, moves with its from-the-soul songs to the heavens, and dazzles with its showmanship and design.

When I first heard “Jesus Christ Superstar,” it was 1970, I was a senior in High School, and I had already developed those questions about religion in general and Christianity in particular that eventually led to full-blown Atheism (though, at the time and for a few years more, I retained a faith that was built more on wishful thinking than on actual conviction). “Superstar” articulated for me many of the vague feelings and doubts I was feeling at the time, particularly the tendency to deify Jesus, making him more important than the lifestyle and worldview he advocated (“You’ve begun to matter more than the things you say”). Since “Superstar” centered on the humanity of Jesus rather than his divinity, it validated all the guilty doubts I brought home from Sunday School.

It also let me know I was not alone in questioning why a rational deity would put such eternal-consequence-soaked importance in faith in the divinity of a man who lived in a small tribal society far removed from the bulk of humanity (“Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land”). Of course, this question goes right to the foundation of Christian theology, and most of the faithful would prefer we don’t ask them to think about it. In fact, we were told that there have been walk-outs of “True Believers” and we in the usher corps were advised that kids under 13 should not be let in because “most parents would prefer their kids aren’t exposed to such questions” – the “Keep them in the Dark” school of childhood religious indoctrination, I suppose.

It’s fun at this stage of my life to grandstand and soapbox my doubts and opinions, and I am glad this show gives me the opportunity to do so. Still, what really sold me on this album in my youth (it was yet to be made into an actual play) was the music. I loved it! The driving drama of “Trial By Pilate,” the gentle lyricism of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” the joyous exuberance of “Hosanna,” the anguish of “Gethsemane” – all were part of the soundtrack of my adolescence and college years, and, heard today can still stay in my head for days afterwards. Even the outrageously out-of-place “Herod’s Song” is enjoyable with its “Prove it to me!” mindset we skeptics bring into every religious discussion.

On the other hand, I was never a big fan of Gospel. Yes, I like its from-the-heart infectiousness and its soulful pleas. But I’ve usually found its monotonous certainty to be hard-going, and I can usually enjoy it only in small doses. So, my knowledge of the form is, by definition, limited, and tambourine-deep only. Still and all, I was willing to give this show a chance, especially considering my love of the source material.

The show dazzles from the moment you walk into the auditorium. Faux Marble flooring and walls, topped by a heavens-high walkway embed this in a classical “limbo” of no particular place and time. The choir and principals are dressed entirely in white. When the “Pharisees” come on in the middle of the first act, they are dressed completely in red (looking like nothing less than satanic televangelists), and Pilate stands apart in a Business Suit. It’s more concert than play, but it “Feels” like a play. And the live band does not overpower the singers (with this many singers, how could it?), and the cast nails almost every number.

If many of the principles are trained singers more than actors, it shows only rarely. Daryl Jovan Williams’ Judas is all clenched fury and angry glances, but when he tears into “Heaven on Their Minds,” it raises the expectations for what’s to come. Nicole Long is very nice in her more interactive “Everything’s Alright,” but her “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” came across more as an singer’s “Big Moment” than as a character’s questions from heart – it sounded good, but I don’t think it quite got down to her emotional core. On the other hand, when Darius de Haas pleads to the heavens in “Gethsemane,” I felt he was leaving pieces of himself splattered on the ceiling – if this is the sort of from-the-gut belt style that defines Gospel, let me have more of it. It was a stunning moment, the highlight of the show for me, and evidence of the electrifying magic that will happen when talents for Song and Character meld in one man.

On a technical level, I sometimes thought the lighting plot was a tad “busy” with its constantly changing, constantly moving spotlights, and it was even a bit distracting in “Damned for All Time” and the title song. But, then, it would dazzle with a moment of pure design inspiration (“Damned …” ending with a converging single red spot through which flakes of silver drift down to Judas’ head, “39 Lashes” punctuated by white light bursts with each stroke, a moonlight pattern surrounding Jesus during “Pilate’s Dream.”). On balance, the many beautifully realized moments far outbalanced the two or so moments of busy distraction.

What’s most miraculous, though, is how the whole concept came together – the seeming contradictions between the style and the play simply did not occur (apart from a Curtain Call Hand-Clapping number that seemed to go against the grain of the show). I liked how the full choir filled out the sound of the group numbers (particularly “Hosanna” and “The Temple”). I liked how the adjusted rhythms and orchestrations made the score sound new and exciting. And I liked how the 1960’s sensibilities that infuse the show were left intact, without seeming dated, or non-contemporary.

It was as if the seeming contradictions of a human/god character espousing ambivalent worldview/eternityview concepts given a treatment that celebrated and honored those very contradictions and ambivalences. It was a tale of doubt and sadness told in a style that screams certainty and joy, an intricately designed piece that stirred the heart and the mind.

It left me breathless.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


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