Devout apostles of musical theater should flock to the Alliance Theatre for Jesus Christ Superstar GOSPEL as soon as possible. Watching Darius de Haas performance as Jesus, particularly his solo of Gethsemane, offers such breathtaking thrills, its like being present at the creation.
Gethsemane finds Jesus on the eve of his execution, confronting God with fear and rage: Take this cup away from me. Anxiety, indignation and other emotions seem to ripple across his features, while he raises a voice that seems capable of shaking heavens foundations. It may be a miracle if de Haas can sustain the songs power throughout the shows entire run, providing justification to make haste to the Alliance.
Built on the scale of a megachurch, the Alliance production performs something of a resurrection on Jesus Christ Superstar by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Louis St. Louis conception and arrangement of the material downplays its origins as a shaggy, hippie-style rock opera by reconsidering it through the prism of contemporary gospel music. The approach paradoxically makes Jesus Christ Superstar sound fresher, yet more timeless. Admittedly, the 27-member choir which only supplements the 22-member acting/singing company could make a religious experience out of crooning a set of IKEA furniture-building instructions.
Director Susan V. Booth presents the show with a clean, uncluttered look that makes a sharp contrast to the elephantine props associated with most of Webbers Broadway work. Jesus, the Apostles and the choir all wear pristine white outfits. When the choir enters down the center aisle, gathers on stage and first sings the familiar, soaring, six-syllable Je-sus-Christ! Su-per-star!" melody, its like staring into a sunrise.
Some numbers demonstrate the Gospelization approach more overtly than others, such as the See my eyes, I can hardly see part of The Temple, when Jesus is besieged by the sick and the lame. The Last Supper turns from a languid after-dinner tune to a rollicking celebration (led by the vivacious Glenn Rainey). Other songs sound less obviously churchy, such as the sinister priests This Jesus Must Die, but benefit from the exciting staging and casting. As the intimidating Caiaphas, for instance, Phillip Boykin has one of the deepest voices Ive ever heard in my life.
Darius de Haas finds a lively antagonist in Darryl Jovan Williams defiant Judas, who genuinely captures that bad-boy rockstar charisma Jack Black mockingly evokes in Tenacious D. I happened to see Saturday nights production when understudy Raena White replaced Nicole Long as Mary Magdalene, and while Whites a sweet-voiced performer with an appealing stage presence, her rendition of I Dont Know How To Love Him came across like an American Idol spotlight song.
The musical only approaches kitschy excess at a few moments, including the title song, a huge, swirling number with a few silly choices, like some conspicuous Christmas lights and cheerleader-style choreography. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ Superstar GOSPEL resonates with unexpected sources from todays headlines. By casting an African-American in the leading role, one who stands before seas of adoring crowds who use words like messiah, the show echoes imagery from the 2008 presidential election.
The shows greater significance lies in its depiction of tension between the sacred and the secular, especially when Judas confronts Jesus with modern-day skepticism over his alleged divinity. Jesus Christ Superstar GOSPEL serves as an interesting counterweight to the 2004 film The Passion of the Christ by encouraging audiences to ask themselves questions about Jesuss activism, and to think about the circumstances of his life as well as his death. Nevertheless, its exciting musical arrangements will be sufficient for audiences who choose not to examine its religious themes. Jesus Christ Superstar GOSPEL doesnt just preach to the converted.
Jesus Christ Superstar GOSPEL Through Feb. 22. $20-$55. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Alliance Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-5000. www.alliancetheatre.org.
(Photo by Greg Mooney)
Forgot to say good work helping get it removed from the Capitol, Joeff. Thank you.
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