A couple of weeks ago I read a review of a new take on Jesus Christ Superstar being put on by the Alliance Theater. They took the same music but gave it a black gospel treatment. The paper raved about it saying it was the greatest thing ever. I’ve always loved the music since I was a kid playing the the album we had in the blue cover on my record player. At some point as a grown-up I rented the movie version of it and was horrified at how dated it had become and really a lot of the music was just loud rock and screaming. So it could really use an update to something more modern. I sent Susan an e-mail with the review and within an hour or so she had bought tickets for Valentine’s Day.
We had really great seats, 10 rows back and right in the middle. The stage and set started out very simple, but became a technical wonder of rising platforms, scaffolding, and an orchestra on wheels. It is nearly an all black cast (I thought it would be good to make Judas white as a contrast with the movie where Judas was the only black guy, but now that I’ve seen it, they made the right choice) with a big chorus and a very good orchestra right on the stage. There are a lot of people in motion on a fairly small stage and everything worked seamlessly. The songs are the same as the original, but there is definitely a gospel sound, sometimes more than others. At times the different sound was jarring since I know the original material so well, but most of the time it really worked, sometimes improving on the original. Plus, being at a live performance made the music far more powerful and intimate. The singing is showy (think Jennifer Hudson) but not over the top. There are a few very strong solos and I guess because there was a significant black presence in the crowd, people broke into applause after almost every song, at least once during a particularly strong moment in a song, and sometimes people would shout out some kind of praise. That added to the experience. Jesus seemed to be kind of a weak singer at first, but during his big solo in Gethsemane when he questions God’s “omnipresent brain” he left no doubt about why he got the part. Judas and Mary Magdalene were very good, and the ultra deep voice of Caiaphas was a real treat.
This is a great adaptation and one that I think has a strong future. People love this music already and adding gospel allows it to be more Americanized. Given the amount of soul in the original rock music and that soul is based on gospel, it isn’t a huge leap, but enough to make this very different. Plus they can add some elements of black culture like soldiers that look like they stepped out of one of Public Enemy’s rap shows, or high priests dressed like modern day African American ministers in black suits and red shirts, or Herod in pimptacular purple. The black cast and gospel music are probably a big draw to black audiences, but the historic rock opera will still deliver traditional theater goers.
Unfortunately, it ends February 22 so there isn’t much time left to catch it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is extended somehow.