Surflight Theatre Puts the Super in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

By RICK MELLERUP | Jul 04, 2018
Courtesy of: Studio 63 Photography Owen Beans as Jesus and the ensemble.

Every Sunday morning in many Christian churches around the world, you’re likely to hear these words: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

I was reminded of that acclamation when taking in the current Surflight production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Director James Alexander Bond set the show in New York City’s Bowery neighborhood in the late 1980s/early 1990s, with a wall plastered with fading handbills, most noticeably one announcing the Ramones, pinpointing the location as near the legendary punk rock club CBGB. It was an excellent choice for both practical (budgetary) and artistic reasons.

Shifting the action from first-century Jerusalem to 20th-century New York kept costume designer Stephanie Luckey from the dreary task of building or collecting an endless stream of robes and sandals. Instead she opted for contemporary, although she did maintain the convention of clothing Jesus in white and Pilate in black. Almost all of the action takes place on the streets, making the set simplicity itself. Meanwhile, the setting makes the racially mixed cast a natural fit rather than a gimmick.

Most importantly, as anybody familiar with the Bowery or the adjoining Alphabet City and Lower East Side neighborhoods of the Mayors Koch and Dinkins years can attest, that milieu would have kept Jesus plenty busy healing the blind, lame and those possessed by demons, while affording him plenty of opportunity to forgive the sins of prostitutes. And remember, just a half-century before, that area of New York was home to far more Jews than Palestine. If Christ had come again in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in most of the 20th century, he would have felt at home.

Bond’s decision gave “JCS” new life and new possibilities, and I can only say thank God for that. I turned 16 in 1971, the year the original album became a hit in the U.S. and the year the Jesus freak movement hit Vermont, so some friends played “Superstar” and “Godspell” continuously, to the point of distraction. I got Jesus Christ Superstarred out! Surflight’s “JCS” reminded me how much I had enjoyed much of its music before I was repeatedly beaten over the head with it.

“Superstar” is a rock opera, with no dialogue, so the show relies heavily on one leg, singing, of musical theater’s three-legged – singing, dancing, acting – stool. Surflight’s cast is up to the challenge. All of the lead and featured performers, including Andrew Foote as Judas, Dwan Hayes as Mary Magdalene, Steve Steiner as Caiaphas, Adrianne Hick as Annas, Ricky Pope as Herod and Andre Dion Wills as Pilate hit the right notes, with the emphasis on hit.

Wait, I haven’t mentioned Owen Beans as Jesus? That’s because he deserves special mention. The tenor can sing clearly and won immediate audience applause for his ability to hold high notes, but his forte is his controlled primal anguish, displayed wonderfully in “Gethsemane.”

The show provides limited opportunities for choreographers, but Michael A. Blackmon made the most of them in a biting “King Herod’s Song” and an athletic “Thirty-Nine Lashes.”

Back to the idea that “Superstar” is a rock opera. Webber is no Pete Townshend when it comes to writing rock music! While his ballads are beautiful, his rock is more pastiche than authentic. And when musical director Nicholas Kaminski pumped up the volume in the show’s “rockers,” Rice’s lyrics were often swallowed, my only complaint about an otherwise far-better-than-solid production.

Of course, the storyline of the show, based on the Gospels’ description of the last week of Christ’s life, didn’t change. Spoiler alert – Jesus is crucified.

Which makes sense. Webber and Rice danced around the idea that Jesus is the son of God in “Superstar” – there is no resurrection scene. Instead they basically opted for describing him as a prophet. Well, consider how we treated 20th-century prophets such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. If Jesus does again come again, there’s a good chance the story will remain the same.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” will run at Surflight through July 15. Get online and visit surflight.org for show times or to order tickets, which are $39 for adults and $29 for children 12 years of age or younger. You can also purchase tickets by calling 609-492-9477 or by visiting the box office, located at 201 Engleside Ave., Beach Haven.

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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