Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Stage

Once condemned, popular musical 'Jesus Christ Superstar' coming to Stage West

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SPRING HILL — The rock opera concept album Jesus Christ Superstar arrived in 1970 to shock and anger among some Christian groups, enraged that Jesus was portrayed as a human with human emotions and frailties, rather than a divinity above it all.

One famous evangelist condemned it outright as blasphemy, though he admitted he had never heard it. Later, he changed his mind, saying it could bring agnostic or atheist young people to church to hear the full story, especially after churches around the country began playing music from the show during services. Not long after that, churches began to produce the entire show themselves, knowing it would be a big draw.

When the musical opened on Broadway in 1971, critics blasted it as "hackwork," but — surprise! — audiences loved it. It had that 1970s counterculture vibe, with hip lyrics, familiar slang and a driving, exciting guitar line. Most of all, it humanized Jesus in a way that may have appalled some, but attracted many more. Composer/writers Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice denied they had any religious motive in writing it and said they'd gone out of their way to make it theologically neutral.

Interestingly, it ends with the crucifixion of Christ and doesn't even mention the very heart of Christianity — the miraculous resurrection.

Indeed, the story is more about Jesus wrestling with the problems caused by his fame than about the sacrifices demanded by his divinity. He seems disillusioned by the high expectations people have of him and the demands they make of him. As one critic wrote, "This was a story more about Elvis than the savior of mankind."

Stage West Community Playhouse will do the perennially popular musical May 12 to 15 and 20 to 22, with a 23-member cast that includes several HAMI Award winners and some surprises — women cast in the key roles of the betrayer apostle Judas (Victoria Primosch, Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors), villainous King Herod (Angelena Burrow, Crystal in Little Shop) and the priest Annas (Lynda Dilts-Benson, Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!).

The musical itself is only about 90 minutes long (plus intermission) and takes place over the last few days before the death of Jesus (Keith Surplus, Younger Brother in Ragtime). It varies from the King James version of events to some extent, but includes the key players — Mary Magdalene (Kristen Ballard, Ronette in Little Shop), the Jewish priests Caiaphas (Brady Lay, Father in Ragtime) and Annas, the pugnacious Simon the Zealot (Jay Garcia, Houdini in Ragtime), Pontius Pilate (Anthony Cromartie, Booker T. Washington in Ragtime) and the apostle Peter (Anthony Agnelli), plus a large ensemble of singers and dancers.

The musical not only humanizes Jesus; it is also rather sympathetic to the apostle Judas, letting him portray himself not as a villain, but as the protector of the Jewish people, as well as a key element in the fulfillment of God's plan. After he agrees to tell the priests where Jesus and his followers are hiding out, he piously vows to donate his "finder's fee" of 30 pieces of silver to some worthwhile charity.

Another departure is the Last Supper, which isn't presented as the comradely final gathering seen in many other dramatizations of that event, but as the scene of anger and accusations and, finally, indifference on the part of the apostles. Jesus is arrested, sent from court to court and judge to judge, vilified by the mob, then finally crucified, where he is mourned by his followers.

Andi Sperduti Garner, who made her Stage West debut in 1991 as a young Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, makes her directorial debut with this production.

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