Friday, May 16, 2008

Jesus Christ Superstar; Good For the Soul, and the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts

I mentioned last week that I had shared an airplane ride from Chicago to Hartford, Connecticut, with the national touring cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, and that I would be attending the show at Hartford's Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts to see what had changed in the 30-some years it has been on the scene.

The good news is that the heart and soul of the original is alive and well, carried to new heights by a cast that includes some incredibly talented newcomers, as well as veteran Ted Neeley, who has been playing the role of Jesus nearly his entire adult life, and who outdid himself. I attended the last show the cast performed in Hartford before it left for its next stop on the tour, and came away with the same sense of appreciation I had 30 years ago.

There is no bad news.

On the plane I was talking with Darrel Whitney, who plays the high priest Caiaphas, about the history of the show and its impact on America when it was first produced.

I noted how the period from late 60s through the 70s was a turbulent time for America, and that even though I was a proud Vietnam veteran, and not a war opponent or protester, I still shared many misgivings about our government and where our society was heading. It was a "Do as I do, not as I say," environment back then, at least in the part of it I inhabited, and it left me with many doubts and concerns.

Nearly four decades later we are experiencing similar upheaval in our country and around the world. It seems to be an appropriate time to revisit the show and the issues it raised.

When Jesus Christ Superstar first was released it was avant garde, challenging dogma both in society and it the theater. I wasn't sure what to expect when I went to see it at what then was the Bushnell Auditorium.

I left that show a convert, to the modern theater and to Jesus Christ Superstar. I enjoyed it conceptually, I enjoyed it artistically, and even though there were some in America who thought it sacrilegious, I had the opposite impression. I came away from that first production with the sense that while much of the religious interpretation I had been raised with had its flaws, the base on which those interpretations rested was solid.

I also reviewed the play a dozen years ago or so when I was still working as a journalist, finding it somewhat changed but still worthy. I took a critic's eye into this latest performance too.

Has Jesus Christ Superstar aged? Yes, and it wears that aging well, like fine wine or cheese. Neeley can still hit the high notes his role requires, but he has added something on the lower ranges that was lacking in his early years, a depth that gives him and the role a sense of maturity. Having seen it now, I realize it was missing way back when.

In the original, the show was challenging establishment concepts about society and religion and it was done through the eyes of a youthful Jesus, who suffers for questioning authority.

But it occurred to me that when the real Jesus lived more than 2,000 years ago, the entire period of his rise to fame and ultimately to crucifixion occurred when he was in his 30s. At that time in human history living to 40 was a major and not necessarily common accomplishment.

In real life, Jesus would have been somewhat of an elder, and while not a member of the establishment, he certainly was more aware and informed than the youth of his time. His preaching would not have come from the pulpit of an inexperienced and idealistic youngster, but more from the position of an experienced rebel.

Jesus, in short, would have been an authority figure.

That is what I found in Neeley's role in this incarnation - no pun intended. He exuded a sense of authority, of knowledge, of leadership. I found it to be a welcome outgrowth of the original role.

Neeley was supported by a cast that I found to be particularly enjoyable. Whitney's Caiaphas was a mixture of the sinister and the macabre, totally as a result of his ability to use the remarkable range of his basso profundo vocals to reach somewhere down in the darkness of a bottomless well, and then rebound, if not to the heights, at least to the foothills.

I enjoyed the range of his voice and the energy he put into his role.

By the same token, I enjoyed Corey Glover who played Judas, and I'm not just saying that because I also appreciated Glover's acting when he played Private Francis in the movie Platoon. I thought he did a fine job on the tortured role of a man who once was a true believer but now is disenchanted and sick of it all.

I can say that of many of the roles - such as Aaron Fuska playing Herrod. I also really, really liked his backup singers, for their voices, the humor they presented in the roles they played, and certainly for their costumes. Hey, this is theater, I can go for any reason whatsoever - even if I'm there for the lighting and scenery.

Read down the list of the cast in the playbill and I can tell you that each person, playing each role, did at least as well in this version as their counterpart in the original. I am far more experienced in matters of the theater now than I was in the 70s, yet this cast was just as capable of leaving me with the knowledge that I had enjoyed an evening of great theater.

And last, but certainly not least, was Tiffini Dodson playing Mary Magdalene. To put it bluntly, I believe she did that role as well or better than anyone I have seen play it before her. The range and power of that woman's voice was awe inspiring, and she exuded a passion for the role that made suspension of disbelief as automatic as breathing.

If there is a proof to my opinions here, not that I need any, it comes in the reaction of a young teen who was in my group on the night we attended Jesus Christ Superstar.

I waited until the next day to ask her reaction to the play to give her time to absorb and digest it all. I also asked her about Dodson's vocals since the young woman in question is a budding vocalist in her own right, but needs a few more years of training before she can start auditioning.

The response to the play, was that it provided a terrific evening of entertainment, and its message came across clearly.

Regarding Tiffini Dodson, the reaction was that she had revealed a possible future for a young woman who is just finding that she has talents that one day could lead to her own roles. Thus Dodson, and in fact the entire case, provided not just entertainment but also knowledge and instruction.

That is a good deal - for the audience, for the Bushnell Auditorium for the Performing Arts, and for the national touring cast of Jesus Christ Superstar.


Risk Taker said...

Mr. Winter, I just saw JCS in Pittsburgh at the end of April and had a chance to speak with Mr. Neeley afterwards. Both were extremely rewarding experiences.

I saw the movie in 1973 when first released and admittedly went in with the preconceived anti-religious prejudice. But I can clearly remember at the end, as the credits were running, that I felt deeply moved by everything on screen.

The portrayal of Jesus as an character "unsure of his purpose” was something that caused me trouble when I brought it up in Catholic school. It seemed as if my teachers wanted to deny that Jesus was in any way human and would have had any doubts about the ultimate plan for him. Oh, how many hours I spent in the principal's office.

Mr. Neeley portrayed (then and now) that uncertainty and then commitment to the nth degree. He still does. That is not even touching on his continuing vocal skill which you so aptly pointed out. You are correct, he hit all the high notes he needed to hit when he sang. The rest of his voice is a lot like a fine wine or beautiful painting that just gets purer, powerful, and more beautiful as it ages and gains experience.

When the show was over in Pittsburgh and I got to speak with Mr. Neeley himself, he seemed generous with this time and very kind to those who wished to speak with him. Never cut anyone short and was totally focused on the individual though I would venture at that hour he was exhausted from performing. He stayed for nearly two hours plus though they still had a six-hour bus ride ahead of them to their next stop. I wanted to stay and talk with him. I could have stayed for hours and hours but I realized it would not be fair to him.

I walked away with a sense of contentment and peace as he seems to take his role as Jesus to heart, to the depths of his soul.

I have reached out to this program in times of personal stress and have always come away with a good feeling because of the performances (live and DVD) and have been touched to the very depths of my being. I can't say that about any other show I have ever attended. Please don’t ask how many times I have seen it. I lost count after 100. I really hope the show never stops but I realize that it too much to ask. I’ll just enjoy what I have seen and hope that there will be a next time.

Funny, this last time (maybe because I believe I might not see it live again) has even made me go to the Bible to see if I can find some answers on my own.
Sorry for going on so long, but I appreciate your comments and am happy I found them.

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