Jesus of Nazareth has been rocking hard since 1970, when former Deep Purple front man Ian Gillan stepped into the savior's sandals with the first production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. The subsequent international tour and 1973 film made musical theater famous for a moment, with protests and controversy welcoming Jesus wherever he went.
Nearly 30 years after that first run, Jesus returns. First stop on the national tour: La Mirada.
It's an opportune occasion to ask whether this show remains remotely relevant.
The answer? Kind of.
On a purely technical level, it's an excellent staging, with costumes, choreography, lights and all the visual panache in which longtime fans of Superstar—and of the crazy Webberian mlange of roller-skaters, cat people and opera phantoms—delight.
Things are less brilliant among the cast. Carl Anderson, who played Judas in the film, is back for this tour and shows why there will never be a Judas to match his intensity or vocal prowess. But his counterpart as Jesus, Skid Row's Sebastian Bach, is anemic. Bach is, well, pretty, and he brings sensuality to a character already humanized and sexualized by Rice and Webber—but he can't act his way out of a pair of red-spandex pants.
Bach's inability to connect with the other characters trashes the play. Who's Jesus if he can't elicit adoration and hatred from those around him? This JC screams like a true rock & roll savior, but mostly he just seems crapped-out on Percoset. Or maybe he's just thinking about his hair.
Ultimately, all quasi-legitimate discussion of this show has to deal with director Kevin Moriarty's concept, which takes Superstar in a direction I've never seen. It appears as if this version of the story takes place in the near future, a time when the savior and his disciples are an economically and politically disenfranchised group of youths. But instead of angry Jews yearning for a revolutionary Messiah who'll throw off the yoke of Roman tyranny, we get a bunch of young men and women outfitted in form-fitting Gap-style sleeveless shirts and khaki pants hounded by brutal black-clad cops and menacing high-priest types. Toss in the set design—Romanesque columns, a hanging sign for the NASDAQ, and a slo-mo Rodney King-style beating of Jesus—and you get a play with its own uniquely shaped sense of time, or maybe a screwy kind of Rent meets Escape From New York.
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The concept is fully articulated on the back wall, in a mural that blends images of an oppressive police state. Amid the graffiti and the haunted figures hovering in the shadows are traces of art that recall everything from Communist propaganda posters to Art Spiegelman's Maus.
If you're not already a Superstar fan or only vaguely recall the story of the historical Jesus, this production will flummox you. But it points in an intriguing direction: in times of social anxiety, the powerful really do see all spiritual epiphenomena as evidence of revolutionary sympathy—recall, for a moment, the Chinese government's crackdown on Qi Gong or the Reagan administration's complicity in the murders of nuns and priests in El Salvador. And there's this about the Messiah: from the kids who want to hang out with him and live his groovy message to the radicals who hunger for the fulfillment of their social agenda, everyone will use him as a symbol of their own cause.
In that respect, this production of Superstar illuminates what has always been the most interesting question raised by the play: in Christianity's haste to glorify and deify Jesus of Nazareth, did Christians lose their Christ and his message of compassion?
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR AT LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS, 14900 LA MIRADA BLVD., LA MIRADA, (714) 994-6310. TUES.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2:30 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2:30 & 7:30 P.M. THROUGH NOV. 17. $33-$38.