Monday, April 18, 2011

Who Do We Say We Think He Is?

Who Do We Say We Think He Is?

By Tom Wachunas

Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” - Matthew 26: 38-39 –

Michael Dempsey, who directed the current production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Players Guild Theatre in Canton, reminds us in his astute program notes that when this Tim Rice (lyrics) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) rock opera collaboration premiered 40 years ago, the notion of a very human, conflicted, secularized Jesus “…chilled the marrow of many believers.” Indeed, on its surface, the show does seem to offer up Jesus Christ as a hapless, misunderstood victim of fate over which he had no say, embroiled in the volatile politics and social perceptions of his backward times. And some might still be flummoxed to know that the story line ends not with the bang of Jesus’ Gospel- acclaimed victory in Resurrection, but with an implied whimper as he steps down from the cross where he died, and walks slowly off into the darkened wings.

Dempsey also correctly points out that the initial outrage and arguments from those early days have progressively waned to the point where many churches find the show’s basic theology suitable for Easter season celebrations, even as productions in the secular world have acquired an increasingly big-budget flamboyance. “It’s a piece of art that lives in two worlds…,” Dempsey notes of this melding of rock with theatre. His goal here was to get back to the basics of the original rock album form while still honoring the show’s theatrical intensity. And in all of that – sound, set, lights, choreography (by Michael Lawrence Akers), and the commanding cast – the evening is supremely successful.

I had forgotten just how brilliantly textured and nuanced the music is for this show, and here it’s presented in rock concert modality, with crystalline intensity, by an 11-piece orchestra on center stage, conducted by pianist Steve Parsons. The multi-level set, designed by Craig Betz, surrounds and rises up behind the orchestra like a crumbling temple conjoined with rocky landscape.

In his superb portrayal of Jesus, Vaughn Schmidt is a marvelous presence, even in the moments when he’s visibly exhausted and overwhelmed by the demands and expectations of the crowds that assail him – both needy and adversarial. It’s a vulnerable Jesus we see in the song “Gethsemane” – desperate for answers in a wrenching, prayerful moment when exasperation and reluctant resolve collide. Schmidt sings with all the urgency and power of a seasoned rocker. His plaintive, high-end sustained notes – piercing howls, really - explode like searing lightning bolts from a storm of deep, churning emotions. It’s that same kind of seasoned emotional electricity that Khaled Tabbara skillfully wields in his role of the brooding Judas. His soaring, throaty vocals bring a visceral pathos to his tortured search to understand and connect with Jesus. In many ways I could almost hear Judas singing the show’s most iconic song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”

But of course that moment is assigned to Mary Magdalene, searching her own soul while gazing at a sleeping Jesus. As Magdalene, Bethany Taylor truly shines, providing a steady, tender light on human longings and conflicted feelings. In another particularly heartrending scene, after Jesus is arrested, she sings the sweetly anguished “Could We Start Again Please?” with Peter, played by Kris North.

Elsewhere in the proceedings, Chuck Simon is riveting as he delivers a startlingly muscular and credible reading of Pilate. Chris Gales is equally startling – both hilarious and scary - as a dandyish Herod, taunting Jesus with his glitzy chorus line harem of hoofers doing the Charleston. John Scavelli and Tom Bryant bring a convincingly chilling and sinister air to their roles of the conniving Annas and Caiaphas, respectively.

In appreciating the artistic impact of this show, it would be like ignoring the proverbial elephant in our living room to dismiss the “religious” questions it raises. I do think the work reflects a long-standing human tendency to pick and choose what we can live with when it comes to accepting history’s most controversial person. We can identify with Judas and Mary Magdelene as presented here because they embody our own struggle to reconcile the earthly with the ethereal. And like them, we might find momentary if not uneasy comfort by re-configuring Jesus into a similarly tormented soul.

Such considerations aside, say what you will about historic Jesus. His last words recorded in the Gospel of Matthew are, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” So whether you call it superstition, speculation, or faith, I’m nonetheless certain that this thrilling theatrical event – like a lot of art made through the ages – is one of many ways he chooses to remain in our midst. Have a Blessed Easter.

Photo by James Dreussi, courtesy Khaled Tabbara as Judas (left) and Vaughn Schmidt as Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar” on the Players Guild mainstage, in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton. Shows are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30p.m. Sundays (except Easter) THROUGH MAY 8. Tickets $22 for adults, $20 for seniors, $17 for students. Order by calling (330) 453 – 7617.

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