The Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar was a 1970 concept album and had its debut on Broadway in 1971.
At the time some considered the show to be blasphemous, while others found it anti-Semitic. These criticisms do not truly belong to JCS as, despite the subject matter, the story is told largely as a series of political events, not religious ones. It would appear that this is why, as stated in David Springstead, Sr.’s director’s note, “we have chosen to present the show in a contemporary setting” for the Little Theater of Norfolk’s latest production.
Unfortunately, that decision has resulted in direction that is so heavy handed that it becomes ineffectual. The Roman guard are clothed as riot police, the character of Herod has the appearance and mannerisms of Donald Trump, ensemble members often play the parts of TV reporters and rioters. It’s as if the director did not trust the lyrics to tell the story and he needed to help Tim Rice along by “goosing” the show visually. It all comes off like the director is choosing the sensation of being edgy over the substance of the story.
A competent staging of the show in today’s world could exist, but this isn’t it. In his eagerness to appear relevant, Springstead has disregarded the most important elements of a successful production: direction and casting.
Jesus Christ Superstar is a rock opera. It is not a play with songs, nor is it a piece of musical theatre; it is a form of opera. It is “sung through,” meaning that there is no spoken dialogue (except in this production, where there is very audible ad-libbing from the ensemble). Unlike musical theatre, in which strong actors who are not the strongest singers can do a very good job, the primary consideration in casting an opera is finding people who can sing the roles. Director Springstead and Musical Director Martha Springstead have failed utterly in this regard. Many of the performers simply don’t have voices with enough range for their roles. Some of the actors are fine on the higher notes, but not the lower, and some the opposite. Unfortunately, some of the performers (several in major roles) haven’t the voice at all for the parts they are singing and therefore alternate “talk singing” with screaming. The very few performers whose voices seem right for their roles are nearly constantly drowned out by the orchestra (which has some particularly discordant horns). The result is a terrible auditory experience. During the performance I alternated between wishing I could hear and being sorry that I could, with the latter feeling being more prevalent.
Bill Armstrong’s set design is simple and utilitarian, which is all this show needs. However, it is painted in such a way that makes it appear, without scrutiny, to be made of unpainted particle board. This distracted me because I spent several minutes trying to determine why the set was unpainted. I also spent the bulk of the show wondering when the cabinet upstage center would be used. (Spoiler Alert: It’s in the last scene).
Paul W. Springstead’s choreography is dull, simplistic, and, unfortunately, unimaginative.
The costume design does not fully support the statement regarding the contemporary setting. Most of the costumes are contemporary, but there are strange idiosyncrasies. Several of the ensemble members are clothed in the hippie/bohemian style that was popular in the 1970s and had a resurgence in the nineties. The character of Caiaphas wears a tuxedo with the addition of an approximation of an ancient breastplate. Jesus has been clothed in white gauze trousers, a white gauze blouse, and a woven belt, making him appear to be, if the setting is today, a man either walking around in his pajamas or getting ready to teach a yoga class. The rest of the cast looks like they are on stage performing in their own rehearsal clothes. The costumer seems to have tried to create a “world apart” onstage, using clothing elements from the modern and ancient worlds. But, if that was the aim, the designer did not go far enough, making only tentative ventures into the past for the overall composition. Whatever the intention, the result is a strange mish mash that fails to provide a cohesive costume design.
There are more, smaller problems that bothered me: the actor playing Judas wears a t-shirt bearing the name of the band Judas Priest; and the force of Peter’s third denial being mitigated by having two women utter a sassy “mmm hmm” and “hmph” afterword, adding an extra beat to the scene and taking the force from what just happened. It’s as if Springstead has made these choices (and the Trump portrayal) in order to create laughs where there needn’t be. Adding children to the ensemble has not benefited the production except to add more bodies onstage for crowd scenes. It appears that Springstead has ignored one of the most basic tenets of directing; all choices made must serve the play.
The Little Theatre of Norfolk is an amateur community theatre. The appropriateness of their choosing a rock opera to produce is questionable. Their selection committee might want to consider simpler, less ambitious projects in the future if their goal is to present quality theatre.