Thursday, April 09, 2009

A Night at the Theater - Jesus Christ Superstar

Three quick points before I start about Jesus Christ Superstar:

1: I love this show. It is one of my all time favorites and the second soundtrack I ever purchased (A Chorus Line was the first, hey it was the '70's).

2: I am fully aware of the show's shortcomings. It is emotionally overwrought and musically bombastic (Hey, it was the '70's). It's also not a great telling of the story of Jesus.

3: I can not explain how I reconcile #1 and #2. It's a Holy Mystery, deal with it.

We saw the national tour of JCS at Shea's in Buffalo last night. My lady wife, the kid and I all were in great anticipation of enjoying a long time favorite. It didn't go as planned.

So here is what we liked:

James Delisco as Judas. Well done, great voice.
Christina Sass as Mary Magdalene - a 2004 graduate of the kid's alma mater (Niagara University) and a lady with a fabulous voice.
Matthew G. Myers as Simon - another great singer
They really gave a great performance.

Then there was what really ruined the show for us:

Caiaphas - they had the actor doing something weird with his voice. Caiaphas is a very low vocal role. But he ended up sounding like James Earl Jones on one of those throat cancer voice boxes. Really distracting. I'm not going to blame the actor but the director for this one.

"Church music-ing" the music - they slowed a fair part of the music down. Just like is often done in church. Everything at dirge tempo. It's a ROCK OPERA for the love of God! Don't know who should get blamed for this one.

Far and away the worst offender was Ted Neely who played Jesus. Where to even begin? Neely played Jesus in the film version of JCS, a film about which it is hard to say enough bad things. It's horrible (why does the promo copy keep calling it "ground breaking"? Unless they're digging a hole to bury it). It also appears to be the one big thing in Ted's career. And so this production is all about Ted. It should be noted that even in his 60's Ted can hit the high notes. Problem is that he couldn't sing in time with the orchestra, appeared to forget the words, did his best "Buddy Jesus" impression through the whole thing (I swear I saw him give the thumbs up at one point), and was generally a weak, aging, worn out Jesus. The show is all about Ted. He is planted center stage for virtually the entire show. Everyone else is dressed in dark colors (other than Mary Magdalene's red dress) while he is dressed in white so the spotlights that play on him constantly (even when he's not the center of the action in the scene) make him glow. The worst moment for that is during "I Don't Know How to Love Him" probably the biggest number in the show (during which Jesus is SLEEPING!). Ted was splayed center stage and lit making sure that you kept looking at him rather than Cristina. In other scenes he constantly mimes speaking to unseen crowds and gesturing towards them. Which distracts from the center of the scene. Or what would be the center except that Ted was standing stage center. Even his curtain call was light front and back. And the cover of the playbill didn't use the usual JCS logo, nope it was Ted. I spent most of the show with my head in my hands.

And whose idea was it to have Jesus ascend FROM THE CROSS?!?!?!?!?!!?

Can't say it was awful. The supporting cast was generally quite good. But a lot of directorial choices said community theater to me rather than national touring company.

And then there was Ted. Ted Neely is probably a very nice guy. The cast seems to enjoy being with him and he has plenty of fans. (I began to wonder if the production was paying claquers - professional applause shills. Ted got some "ovations" for things that weren't worthy of the acclaim that started with single voices, and I mean SINGLE voices, from the far reaches of the crowd).

But it was SO disappointing. Fortunately the kid has the original soundtrack cast on her ipod so we flushed our brains with that version on the drive home.


PS - In the comments is a note from Mark Baratelli. Mark is the actor who plays King Herod in the show. Given the negative nature of my "review" I give him a lot of credit for a very polite visit. As someone who had hoped to make the theater my life and spent my career performing on radio I know how much bad reviews suck. My hope is that the entire cast has a fabulous rest of the tour.


StarlitDestiny said...


ugh. *shakes head*

forsythia said...

Loved the crack about "ground-breaking." Old fogey that I am, I never cared for JCS anyway, but I'm sorry you were disappointed.

Reverend Ref + said...

Okay ... so I liked the original JCS movie.

And saw the production in Spokane with Ted Neely and ... um ... The Original Judas ... I thought it was very well done and enjoyed it.

Then more recently I saw an "updated" version of it. It was placed in a modern day city-state run by high tech Pharisees. Not so much. The crucifixion scene was "artsy," in that people ran up to Jesus and smeared paint on him.

Anyway . . . sorry to hear that in this version someone tried to be creative. Isn't this like trying to do an updated cover of "Stairway to Heaven"? Some things you just don't mess with.

Mark Baratelli said...

Sorry you didn't enjoy the show.