A fascinating but uneven production of the 1970 musical Jesus Christ Superstar I saw Friday night at Cottage Theatre came suddenly into focus about halfway through Act I, when Jesus, played by Kory Weimer, dreams he’s surrounded by the sick.
As Jesus begins to heal the blind, the consumptives, the cripples and the lepers who are drawn to his celebrity, he’s pulled down into their midst – and they just keep coming, limping and crawling to suck him dry in a scene weirdly reminiscent of Tod Browning’s movie Freaks, or perhaps a zombie attack.
Immediately after, Autumn Carter, as the red-dress-filling Mary Magdalene, who is in love with Jesus in definitely an earthly sense, charms the audience with “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” perhaps the best song in the show.
Tony Rust, who is a force of nature at Cottage Theatre, is the director. He’s also credited as the set designer, head of set construction, costume designer and sound board operator – all of which means he gets much of the credit for the production’s sins and for its glories, which weigh in about evenly for me.
First those glories. This is a difficult play to pull off, even for a big theater. It’s to Cottage Theatre’s – and Rust and his cast’s – credit that they did it at all. When the show opened on Broadway in 1971, it was thrashed by critics on every side. Critics be damned to hell, though, as it’s continued to be resurrected over and over again, and was even nominated for a couple Tony Awards – it’s never won one – in a Broadway revival in 2012.
The rock musical tells the story of the final week of Jesus’ life, focusing on tensions between the disloyal apostle Judas Iscariot, who is in some ways the protagonist of the story, and Mary Magdalene, seen here as Jesus’ girlfriend, as well as on the politics of his trial and execution on the cross. In the extra-Biblical spin of the play, Judas is worried that Jesus has become too full of himself, while Mary would just like to settle him down as a regular, if unusually interesting, guy. (If you don’t know your New Testament details, you actually might brush up before you go.)
The best thing about this show is that Rust cast Judas Iscariot as a woman – Melissa Miller. This isn’t entirely without precedent, but it’s an unusual decision. Miller’s performance spins the story into an entirely different direction, crafting the three lead roles into a romantic love triangle. That final betraying kiss lands smack on the lips.
Weimer is a conventionally intense Jesus, sometimes relying too much on the deep-set-eyes look, but he generally handles the title role well.
Finally, the live five-piece band, under the direction of Jim Reinking, performs in plain sight upstage but behind chain-link fence panels, as though playing at a roughneck bar. They’re note-perfect.
The sins, though, are striking. The sound is so convolutedly bad in places, with random screeches and lyric-destroying distortion, that the theater actually apologized for it last night in the curtain speech before the show. (Hint: Just get it right.) Too much of Miller’s Judas, a talky, interesting role, is lost to the sound system, and Carter’s passionate “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” sounded tinny and frayed.
The other problem is that Rust’s ultra-industrial set – basically, scaffolding filling the stage from floor to ceiling – includes a metal ramp, or ladder, that is winched slowly down and up again at center stage. It goes up and down so many times, so slowly and with so much noise, that it distracts from the show more than it adds.
Mostly, though, any new production of this 45-year-old show needs to overcome a certain cringe factor built into the play itself. When Jesus Christ Superstar was new, so were shag carpet and avocado appliances. 1970 was at least a decade before America discovered irony, and the show pretty much drips with sincerity.
The very idea of a pop musical about Jesus in those long-ago days was racy and bold, and, predictably, some people got offended. Today, too much of the show just feels quaint, like the song, early in Act I, “What’s the Buzz,” which comes across nearly as hip as your embarrassing uncle who wears satin shirts and gold chains.
Still, though, I love musicals with energy and spirit, and this one has both – even if it’s the holy spirit.
Parental note: This isn’t a show for little kids. The flogging of Jesus is bloody, and the crucifixion is equally graphic. Be warned.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs through October 25 at Cottage Theatre, 700 Village Drive, Cottage Grove. See more at CottageTheatre.org