Before Evita, before Cats, before becoming a household name from the West End to Broadway, Andrew Lloyd Webber made a mark a half-century back in the nascent genre of rock opera. Along with his career collaborator lyricist Tim Rice, he wrote Jesus Christ Superstar, now a long way from its point of origin but lively as ever as North Coast Repertory Theatre's latest production.
When it debuted, Jesus Christ Superstar was quite controversial and also massively popular, and it has lasted through the decades, drawing from several of the gospels to tell a story of the final days of Jesus. Its endurance has to do with the fact that it can be staged as a very ambitious production heavy on detail or mounted on a smaller scale, and is almost always done in some degree of modern dress, which is undertaken here with great flair by director Calder Johnson and costume designer Olivia Gambino.
Additionally, one need not be fully familiar with the details of the four canonical gospels, the makeup of the Sanhedrin or such matters to follow the story. The play's success in the 1970s came largely from songs (like "I Just Don't Know How to Love Him") that were breakout pop hits on their own, something at which Webber and Rice would prove monstrously (use whichever definition of that word you see fit in this case) adept in the course of their careers.
Also of note is that perhaps the best role in the play, both in dramatic range and other small ways, almost inarguably belongs to Judas Iscariot. Played here quite impressively by newcomer Holly Couling, Judas enters as the play begins, singing the rousing song "Heaven on their Minds," lamenting the precarious state of self-proclaimed king of the Jews and his followers amid the politics of the Roman-occupied holy land. It's here that some of the lyrics ("But every word you say today/Gets twisted 'round some other way/And they'll hurt you if they think you've lied") reflect the play's device of trying to see the story through a more modern lens, which works just as often as it can seem forced.
The number serves also to introduce Jesus (Jordan Dobbins), who, fitting the record of the ages, plays a role just as conflicted as Judas', but in a less showy manner. Dobbins, last seen at NCRT in A Winter's Tale and as the lead in Cabaret, does a magnificent job in a role that calls precisely for a human-sized performance — meaning either bland or audacious — of a historically outsized figure. Rounding out the leads is local theater vet Nanette Voss-Herlihy as Mary Magdalene, who brings a good flair to a role that, as written by Webber and Rice, is better fleshed out than the original source material, to put it mildly.
Much of the first act is occupied with the machinations of Caiaphas (Craig Benson) and the Pharisees to move to arrest Jesus to keep peace in Roman-occupied Israel, along with Judas' ultimate betrayal. It does also contain Jesus' anger upon arriving at the temple and violently casting out the moneychangers and merchants, an incident in the gospels that for 2,000 years was crying out for a rousingly staged number ("The Temple"). The play's second act is more focused and memorable, and Dobbins shines in the long and contemplative song that serves as his dialogue with God, "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)," exhibiting an amazing range as a tenor.
Choreographer Tiggerbouncer Custodio (Pippin, Cabaret), who also crops in the cast as Simon Zealotes, does a bang-up job in coordinating a versatile ensemble of dancers and singers who appear throughout the play in number after number — some of them frenetic and energetic, others quietly reflective. Morgan Cox, the man of the hour of late at NCRT, makes the most of a small but pivotal part as Pontius Pilate in the violent and gripping number "Trial Before Pilate," which involves nearly all of the cast.
Jesus Christ Superstar is many things: As conceived by Webber and Rice, it is a great piece of pop art that transcends some of the early-'70s trappings that might be eye-rolling now by having a certain malleability. Adherents of the Abrahamic faiths can enjoy the story alongside nonbelievers; the play ends simply with Christ's crucifixion and stops short of the resurrection, which plays more like a creative choice than any larger statement. And I suppose that gets back to the play's endurance. One cast member's bio for NCRT's production states that "she grew up rocking out to the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack album in her mom's record collection." It's how many people came to this story and in Calder Johnson's great staging of this play, you can feel that energy running straight through.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays at North Coast Repertory Theatre on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through Dec. 8. For more information, call 442-6278 or visit www.ncrt.net.
David Jervis is an Arcata-based freelance writer who prefers he/him pronouns.
Redwood Curtain Theatre stages the intense, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a family coping with the loss of a child, Rabbit Hole, runs through Nov. 23. Visit www.redwoodcurtain.com or call 443-7688.
The musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda comes to Ferndale Repertory Theatre Nov. 27 and runs through Dec. 22. Visit www.ferndalerep.org or call 786-5483.
Return to Oz, this year's installment of Dell'Arte's holdiay show, starts its tour on Nov. 29 at the Carlo Theatre and rolls through McKinleyville, Scotia, Orick, Eureka, Klamath, Trinidad and Arcata before returning to Blue Lake and playing through Dec. 22. Visit www.dellarte.com or call 668-5663.
The classic holiday musical Annie is back at the Arkley Center for the Performing Arts Nov. 29 through Dec. 1. Visit www.mainstagehumboldt.com or call 572-4013.
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