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07.16.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Jana Marcus
Pilate Episode : Pontius Pilate (David Cox, right) gives Jesus (Adam Campbell) the business in 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' performed by Cabrillo Stage.

What Would Jesus Sing?

Cabrillo Stage's 'Jesus Christ Superstar' is part human, part divine.

By Matthew Crags


Despite their association with class and sophistication, most operas entail crass plots and mindless spectacle marked by gratuitous sex and violence. Add some electric guitars and the brash attitude of rock & roll and you have a rock opera. Add a story ripe with betrayal, salvation and a struggle for the fate of humanity and you have Jesus Christ Superstar.

The third creation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Superstar follows Jesus Christ from his arrival in Jerusalem through his death at the hands of the Romans. Webber and Rice, who penned music and lyrics respectively, present the Son of God as a troubled soul who is preternaturally aware of his impending death and his limitations as a savior. Judas Iscariot, Jesus' right-hand man, loses faith in Jesus and betrays him, just as in the classic biblical story, but Superstar displays Judas as a conflicted man needing our sympathy. It is in the torn souls of these religious icons that the humanity of the world is revealed.

While Superstar tinkers with the strict word of the Bible, it maintains the themes of betrayal and sacrifice that director David Cox (who also plays Pilate) and a wonderful cast pull together for Cabrillo Stage's second summer performance. Much like Rambo, Jesus chose his sparse words very carefully, and Adam Campbell makes the most of these moments with a deliberate delivery and the ear-straining high note essential to all rock operas. At the same time, Campbell is able to maintain his quiet, strong stage presence even when the revelry of a 21-person ensemble overflows onto the scene. The size of the ensemble is an issue; at points finding Jesus or Judas feels like a game of Where's Waldo? and the hip-hop-meets-Bye Bye Birdie choreography at times overwhelms the physical limits of the stage.

Judas, who is disillusioned not so much by Jesus' divinity as by his humanity, is a distraught character, and Jarrod Washington intensifies the character from there. While it doesn't distract from the character's struggle, Washington's physical representation of his distress becomes unintentionally funny at inconvenient moments. After Judas is forgiven, Washington--now unconfined by Judas' sins--is free to deliver a more relaxed but nonetheless powerful performance. As Judas before him, Washington leaves the stage redeemed in the eyes of the audience.

However, some are beyond saving. Caiaphas and Annas are clearly the villains of the show, but it appears they would be more content in a Disney cartoon than onstage. Steven Berlanga and Benjamin Holck clearly force their voices to a place of fiendish treachery more appropriate to Gaston and Lefou from Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Whether it is for comedic effect or dramatic emphasis is unimportant, because it succeeds on neither level. At the opposite end of the spectrum are Andrew Ceglio and Cory Jones, who explode onstage as Herod and Simon Zealotes. They command the show and embody the concept of a rock opera. Ashley Little stands out in her turn as Mary Magdalene. Little commands an amazing voice as effortlessly as if she were reciting her ABCs, and it's a joy to see her inhabit the more nurturing and love-sick Magdalene that Webber and Rice created.

The set is straightforward, with a set of center-stage stairs and banks of televisions lining the wings. The multimedia provided by the screens works when the images are subtle and complement the situation on the stage, but become as clichéd as an American flag at a country music concert when pictures of MLK, JFK and Gandhi are splashed on the screens as Jesus surrenders to his fate. A full orchestra is largely hidden from view, but the welcome effect of live music enhances the show from start to finish.

A number of artists gave months of their lives that we may enjoy Jesus Christ Superstar. With strong leads singing a great soundtrack to a full orchestra--the Holy Trinity of musical theater--it's easy to be thankful for their sacrifice.


JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR runs through Aug. 17 at the Cabrillo Theater, 6500 Soquel Dr., Aptos. Tickets are $15-31. For schedule and tickets, visit www.cabrillostage.com.


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