Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Friday the 2nd, May: Jesus Christ Superstar

By amazing coincidence, whilst I was in the printshop no less, I happened to be listening to my iPod while the other inhabitants of the work space were using the radio there, instead. They stepped out but left the device on and I, well, I was chilling in a chair waiting for my screen to dry so yeah right I was getting up until that happened. And a good thing, too. There were commercials playing, I knew that much, but only just when my song ended and was taking a second to turn to the other did I catch a distinctive word -- the announcer saying "- for the legendary Jesus Christ Superstar" just as the ad ended.

Wait, /what/ about the legendary JCS? I was desperate to know. It is, after all, my favorite musical. So, of course, I was obliged to Google it. What else could it mean when a musical's name is on your local radio then that the musical is also or is going to be local? And what kind of fan doesn't jump on the chance to go?

Sure enough, a search revealed that "Jesus Christ Superstar" was playing at the Orpheum -- like, /this/ weekend. Surely, it was only a miracle that let me hear about it in time. Because, further miracle of miracles, they weren't sold out. And then I glanced at the flyer for it.

And read the name "Ted Neeley". Starring Ted Neeley.

This is Ted Neeley. He starred in the 70s movie version of JCS and I had a huge religiously confusing crush on him. This was it. This /was/ Jesus. I had to go.

So I went.

And here's what I thought:

First of all, I went twice. When I realized I'd bought tickets for Sunday matinee, I panicked that I might be given an understudy, especially considering that Neeley is 64 years old and could, understandably, need a break from screaming his throat hoarse out on stage. ( He being known for his amazing rockstar screams ) My second bought tickets were for Friday, the opening night, where I was pretty sure it was a guarantee he'd be there.

The theater was full fairly quickly. Full, too, of teenagers in jeans, hoodies, and lazily texting on their phones up until the lights went down - and a tiny bit after. Theater etiquette had certainly changed. Or maybe texting is just -way- too easy now.

Anyway, the show starts with limited scenery - a platform, stairs on either side, and a walkway across. All black. Lighting. The music starts. I'm somewhat surprised when people come out and begin to move during the overture. It's a couple of disciples and the guards they're hiding from. When spotting each other, the two groups engage in a slow motion fight. Yes, slow motion. always slightly questionable, but okay. Because pretty soon it's over and everyone's crying over their lost companion and as the music begins to swell... Ted Neeley - Jesus arrives.

He spread his hands and looked at the audience ( or maybe someone else, as I'll get to later ) in an anticipatory looking move. We obliged by bursting into claps, screams, and tears. Yes, tears. Two rows ahead of me were several teenaged to young-twenties women in front of me and one of their group was the obviously recognized "biggest fan". Her shoulders were shaking, she looked to be crying. It was sort of an amazing response. I can't say I didn't feel a very similar way.

So the scene progresses. Jesus does what he does best and everyone runs off happy except a very petulant Judas. And I mean this guy played a very sulky Judas. He always seemed to be holding his head down and shuffling his feet in an eternal tantrum. He was a great singer, but I was distracted. As soon as the opening lines of "Heaven on Their Minds" were sung, I couldn't concentrate because I was sitting there hearing how it was different from the version I knew. I didn't know if it was his decision or the director's, but the music was different. Maybe it wasn't bad-different, but it was certainly enough to throw off a person so used to hearing something else. I'm biased because of what I've grown up on, I can admit that.

Another sort of amusing note was Caiphas. I'm ready to believe that he was picked because he -could- go that low, not because he was supposed to. He sang as many of the shorter more dramatic lines as he could at the famous Caiphas level but, at longer verses, he jumped dramatically and somewhat jarringly to a higher range. I don't blame the guy - Caiphas' part is ridiculous and hilarious - but it was still kinda funny and, again, distracting.

Which leads me up to the most distracting of all -- how distracted Jesus was. The stage direction for this pivatol role took a whole new shift here. It began right off the bat, when Ted Neeley was giving what appeared to be props to the crowd. He looked up and lifted gentle but acknowledging hands. People even waved back from their seats. I thought at first that maybe someone had started it by gesturing wildly to him.

But the gestures from Jesus' side continued. Then he started to talk to himself. Then I realized he was talking to God. He would stare at the back of the top of the theater and make hand motions and move his mouth and everything. Once or twice and this was interesting... but it continued throughout the entire production to such an extent that he had to be shaken out of his reverie almost every time whenever the disciples wanted to sing a line to him. That was a bit bizarre, and saddening. I like to see a human Jesus, a troubled but friendly Jesus who's becoming more and more frustrated and on-the-edge. But he was very calm, though occasionally he'd 'yell' or 'argue'-like at God, and the way he was never quite aware of what was going on around him didn't let him be angry enough about it.

On the other hand, Neeley was nearly spot on. You could hear in his voice, yes, that he was an old man and it crackled and was rough accordingly. But I had already gone into this prepared to forgive him since you can't possibly sing like he does for that long and come out the other side with a perfect voice. The point was that he could still hit those notes, and still scream. And when he needed to, boy, did he. I was under the impression later that he was holding himself back somewhat in the first act to prepare for the more physical, more emotional, more demanding second. I understood, but my sister made a good point when she went that it made his outbursts seem less understandable when he was so calm and reserved every other moment.

As a little personal comment: yay, they were doing the old version. Despite some changes in music for Judas and for Herod, the words and themes were reverted to what I knew best. And this included a "Jesus Christ Superstar", the titular Judas song, done in uplifting white.

My gripe is that in the revival, Judas is shown dressed in leather and red, surrounded by dominatrixes in scanty-wear ( though the 70s accompanying angels aren't baring any less skin ) and exercising a vicious need to break Jesus down and taunt him in his time of suffering. It makes the whole song extremely mocking and Judas' journey completely pointless. One of the things I like about JCS is the way it examines Judas and Pontius' individual struggles as people, who don't understand what's going on around them, and are forced by circumstance or momentary weakness to succumb - but succumb to a fate that God made necessary. If it wasn't Judas, it would've had to be Peter or John or anyone. He needed a Judas and a Pontius Pilate to condemn Christ. They had roles. Mean, hard roles.

So even though I may not be sure that suggesting Judas went to Heaven after this ( and after killing himself ) I certainly think that the taunting Hell version is not the message the musical orgiinally intended.

So, I was glad. Judas was in white, and he sang with emotion and not sarcasm.

Unfortunately, there was one other change that did irk me quite a bit. The show was obviously taking a pretty heavy stance here in saying that God was real and God was a part of this and they put their foot down during Gethsemene by having Jesus suddenly refuse, repeat "No" several times - only to be immediately struck by God's wrathful lightning.

... Say what? I mean. Come on. The point is supposed to be Jesus' struggle to come to terms with what he's about to do ( die ), not "and then God said: you ain't got a choice, -----". Which may explain the awkwardness that occurred when they attempted to insert this new direction right after the lines "Alright. I'll die." If they had to do it, maybe they should've gone back a bit earlier in the song.

However, they finished strong. After the crucifixion ( during which Neeley is stripped and hanging on a cross in the middle of the stage writhing around and convincing us that this is a man suffering and dying seemingly alone ), Jesus is raised. Nothing too triumphant, just the simple pulling of Neeley into the rafters, still frozen in the crucified position. It was very strong. And kind of amazing that he was 64 years old.

All in all, the show was more than enjoyable. Nothing can compare to the experience of getting to see Ted Neeley in the flesh and I would never, ever pass up the chance to see JCS again and again and be able to compare notes between all the ways people decide to put it on.

Now I might have to... go listen to the soundtrack again.

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