I don’t normally like to review community theater productions. Having acted in them for a number of years now, I understand there are limitations. The only thing that is usually more bankrupt than the theater’s budget is the community’s talent. However, after having recently witnessed a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar, the theater critic inside of me is bursting at the seams. The production I saw was held in a small theater strategically placed at the end of a strip mall next to a Super Cuts and a Dollar Store. The strip mall is right down the street from an airport and I think the theater had at one time been an airplane hanger. It’s just possible that after this production, the building may once again revert back to hosting planes instead of plays.
The only reason I attended this performance was because a friend of mine had the coveted role of Judas. Before I go any further, let me just say that my friend, Jason, is a fantastic singer and has a commanding presence on stage. His talent was far above the rest of the cast and to me that disparity made this performance even funnier. I have also been in my fair share of plays that were not Tony Award winning material so I know how it is to stage a production with less than stellar casting. I once had to play a 15-year-old prostitute in a production of Oliver when I was in my 40s. Luckily for me, no one wrote a review of my performance. Unfortunately, the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar will not be as lucky.
From the first moment the play started and the ensemble stumbled on stage singing ‘Hosanna’ and waving plastic palm fronds, I knew I was in for a treat. One of the most important things about staging and costuming is to stay true to the time period. If you’re producing Fiddler on the Roof, you should never see Tevye’s cell phone peeking out from under his tallit. Now, I wasn’t around 2,000 odd years ago but I’m almost positive that black ballet flats and zippers weren’t around then either. Although, I think the plastic frond waving man who was wearing glasses was the biggest costume offender. Unless Visionworks had a Jerusalem branch, he probably should have left his glasses backstage. Or, better yet, since Jesus healed the blind, I’m sure he could have helped this guy out.
And speaking of Jesus, this was the most timid portrayal of Jesus I have ever seen. He was small and thin and the side part in his hair was so straight and even he must have used a level. He looked like a real estate agent in sandals. Although, while the non-descript Jesus blended in perfectly with the ensemble, it was Mary Magdalene and Simon who really stood out. Simon had braided hair extensions that were not only piled on top of his head, but also cascaded down his back. It was obvious to me that Simon and Jesus must have visited the Super Cuts next door before they took the stage. But, at least their hair was their own. Two other men wore wigs that they must have found in the bottom of the prop box. One wig was an extremely shiny silver color that reflected off the lights like a disco ball. It was reminiscent of something Andy Warhol may have worn – and it was lopsided. Mary Magdalene, on the other hand, must have visited Fredericks of Jerusalem because underneath her sheer tunic she was wearing black Spanx and a push-up bra. Jesus was nervous every time she shimmied up to him. I quickly forgot all of these costume catastrophes, though, when Caiaphas and Annas took the stage.
I’m not exactly sure what type of robe a Roman high priest may have worn back then, but I’m almost certain that a black latex skirt and midriff top would have been an inappropriate choice. Both Caiaphas and Annas looked like their costumes were inspired by a 1980s Judas Priest video. Annas was the first to saunter downstage mustering up as much power as he could to belt out his solo. With his clenched fists and narrowed eyes, the last thing I expected to hear coming out of his mouth was the high-pitched voice of Mariah Carey. There were some notes I’m sure only dogs could hear. Obviously, the most powerful weapon Annas possessed was his ability to shatter glass; if glass had been invented then. It was a much different story when Caiaphas sang. His voice was ultra low and rumbled like a bad dishwasher motor. This Caiaphas also had a lisp. At one point I leaned over to my husband and asked, “Did he just say bring me the head of Jethus?” Yes. Yes he did. He spent the whole night shouting to the audience that he was looking for “Jethus all over Jeruthalem.” Several times I, myself, wanted to give up Jethus’ location just to shut him up, and Caiaphas could have kept his 30 pieces of silver. Then, Judas came out.
There is a powerful scene in Jesus Christ Superstar where Jesus and Judas face off. The battle between good and evil comes to a head in this duet and normally the audience is rooting for good! Not this time. Judas was so overpowering both physically and vocally that I thought Jesus was going to pick up his dress and run off stage crying. This night, I’m sorry to say, evil won. Poor Jesus. He really was having a bad night; and this was way before he got crucified. I had hoped that maybe if we saw him perform a miracle or two it would boost his image. Since he obviously failed to do anything about the guy wearing glasses, I still believed that we’d see him walk on water or heal the lepers. However, after the lepers came out, I had to face the agonizing truth that if this Jesus did attempt to walk on water, he would drown.
Speaking of the Lepers. While Jesus is singing some song about questioning his faith and his duty to God, lepers looking to be healed suddenly overtake him. They ambled out from behind the curtain like stiff zombies covered in burlap. Their arms were outstretched and apparently the leprosy had eaten away their kneecaps because no one was able to bend their legs. One by one these stiff-legged lepers swarmed Jesus while he tried to lay his healing hands upon them. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve read the Bible all the way through because I haven’t. But I do have enough knowledge of the New Testament to know that when Jesus lays his hands on the lepers they are healed. That’s one of the biggest miracles he performs. Personally, I prefer the turning water into wine miracle, but I guess if your limbs were falling off from leprosy you’d rather have this miracle. Unfortunately, the director here didn’t quite get the story right, because after Jesus touched these lepers, they still had leprosy. I expected them to toss off their burlap coverings, fall down on their newly replaced knees and give thanks for being healed. Nope. They continued to walk stiff-legged off the stage moaning and groaning, and still in search of a cure. I also noticed that there appeared to be many more lepers than there were cast members. After a few rounds I realized that the same people just kept walking around backstage and coming out again. Maybe they kept thinking Jesus would get it right on the third or fourth trip around. (Note: He never did).
While I was still reeling from the clown car of lepers, I was glad that they hurried up the Last Supper and got right to Pontius Pilate’s hand washing and sentencing of Jesus. Apparently, they didn’t really have much on Jesus, because when Pilate unrolled his scroll to read the charges, it was only about six inches long. I’ve gotten longer receipts from CVS. Anyway, the crowd cheered, they stripped Jesus of his robe and he was left wearing a makeshift loincloth with a nice elastic waistband and white boxer shorts. In the Bible it is written that the Romans gambled for Jesus’ robe because it was so fine. That didn’t happen here. Someone just walked away with his robe, but I do think the Romans were intrigued by the elastic waistband and boxer shorts. They may have gambled for them after the play ended, but now they had to get ready for the crucifixion scene.
From somewhere off stage left, two guys came out carrying the cross. The cross had two handles and a footrest on it. This was going to be the most comfortable crucifixion in history. The only thing missing was a pillow for his head. I think they got the cross from La-Z-Boy. I was too far away to see, but there might have been a cup holder on it too. So, while the off-stage chorus sang the title song, Jesus uttered a few words and then hung his head. I couldn’t tell if that meant he died or he was just ashamed of the part he played in this travesty. The lights went down, but not enough that you couldn’t see Jesus hop down from the cross’ footrest and walk away. He could have at least limped a little. The final scene was Peter and Simon rolling out a big rock (which was really a Styrofoam circle painted gray). They pretended that it was really, really heavy but since it was only three-quarters of an inch thick, I knew they were acting. They rolled the big “rock” in front of a door at the end of the stage and then they walked away. After they exited, a bright light shone from behind the rock and then disappeared. I’m not sure if that was supposed to symbolize the resurrection, or if Jesus was reading a Kindle. Either way, that was the end of the play and the newly resurrected Jesus emerged once again from offstage, joined hands with the people who had just killed him and took a bow.
As we were exiting the theater I heard someone in the crowd whispering something about an upcoming production of “South Pacific.” I only hope that the guy with the lisp will be out of town.