|Dan Bahr, Matthew Brown, Zachary Centers, Zachary Johnsen, Travis Schlegel.|
By Tina Arth
When Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber first released Jesus Christ Superstar as an album in 1970, they could not have anticipated the effect this powerful rock opera would have on subsequent generations of theater lovers. Theatre in the Grove’s current offering is the latest in a long string of productions bringing the authors’ vision to the public, and it definitely merits its place in the august lineup. Director Ken Centers, music director Michelle Bahr, and choreographer Jeananne Kelsey have collaborated to give the show its own unique flavor while remaining generally faithful to the now-classic words and music of the original. Quite appropriately, the solo vocals are not always pretty – often imbued with a gritty individualism – while the ensemble work flawlessly mirrors the groupthink of the adoring crowds.
The entire story is told in song (like Lloyd Webber’s earlier Joseph, some rock, some pop); with no spoken dialogue, the show is truly an opera. Although set in ambiguously modern times (wardrobe, machine guns, even a man-bun) it revolves around the period leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, seen primarily from the perspective of the title character and his betrayer, Judas Iscariot. Judas is angry – he sees Jesus as a man who has succumbed to his own hype, now betraying the original mission, and buying into the hero-worship of fans who view him as the King of the Jews. Judas is also furious about Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene – he believes that consorting with a woman in her profession opens them up to criticism and violates the group’s principles. Jesus is exhausted from the pressure of his role – he sums it all up in “Gethsemane” when he sings “I’m not as sure as when we started. Then I was inspired, now I’m sad and tired. Listen, surely I’ve exceeded expectations. Tried for three years, seems like thirty.” Both Jesus and Judas begin to realize that they are pawns of inexorable forces– one compelled to suffer and die for a cause he cannot fully grasp, the other compelled to betray his closest friend in order to bring the story to its tragic conclusion. The story deviates pretty significantly from the Biblical version(s), but in doing so it sheds a powerful light on the age-old dilemma of reconciling Jesus the man with Jesus the agent of God.
Matthew Brown (“Jesus”) eases gradually into his role – at first a tepid participant in the crowd’s worship, then overwhelmed and frantic in the leper scene – and when he cries out “Heal yourselves!” we cannot help but empathize with his plight. While this depressed and downtrodden Jesus has bursts of strength (especially in “The Temple”) Brown does a fine job of conveying his character’s confusion, fear, and ultimate resignation to a fate he never sought. Micaiah “Ky” Fifer is just the opposite – from his first moment on stage he is bursting with furious energy as he tries in vain to steer his friend away from certain doom. Fifer’s strident vocals (and bulging biceps) combine to define his persona, setting us up for his moving reprise of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and, ultimately, “Judas’ Death.” The third key character is Anna McKie (“Mary Magdalene”), who simply nails every song and scene in which she appears. She’s calm and caring, with a sinewy fragility that embodies both Mary’s femininity and her quiet strength. Her voice is lovely, and her delivery of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Everything’s All Right” are the perfect counter to Fifer’s pent-up rage.
Other particularly impressive and often fun portrayals (it may not be obvious, but there are lots of comic touches) are Zachary Centers’ “Caiaphas,” Travis Schlegel’s “Pontius Pilate,” Zachary Johnsen’s “Annas” and Jeannane Kelsey (sinuously eye-catching swiveling around in her black short-shorts).
Much of the show’s ambience is created through technology, done beautifully. The video screens give Zach Centers a disembodied eeriness and enhance Jesus’ death scene with gripping images of crucifixions, while the elevator cross injects a modernist note into a barbaric ancient practice. In some places, elaborate lighting effects create a carnival-like atmosphere that works perfectly for a mindless crowd.
The importance of Michelle Bahr’s work as both music director and conductor cannot be overstated. Synthesizer, guitar, flute, horns, drums and all the rest work together to support the vocalists and to introduce shifting moods as the show progresses through the story and through a variety of musical styles.
Audiences familiar with the original 1970 Jesus Christ Superstar album or the subsequent stage and movie versions will not be disappointed with Theatre in the Grove’s 2017 take, and newcomers should be converted into fans rushing to Amazon or YouTube to explore earlier executions of the work. The show runs only three weekends, and the best seats should go fast.
Jesus Christ Superstar is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through May 7th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.