THE PROBLEM with the Bible, according to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, is that it's too far removed from the twentieth century. So the musical-writing duo decided to update the story of the Gospels, and Jesus Christ Superstar was the result.
As a rock opera, the musical is an innately modern version of Jesus' adult life and crucifixion, but to be successful, a production of Superstar must engage the audience in the world of the play. And the Leverett House version does just that, by setting the scene right in Harvard Square.
Director Joe Giani presents Jesus and his followers as the punks and leafleters who hang out by Out of Town News, and the premise works extremely well. Jesus Christ wears penny loafers, the Jerusalem Temple sounds like the stock market and Mary Magdalene sports an "I Love Jesus" button.
Giani also deals handily with a second problem often associated with productions of Superstar--the music is very difficult to sing. Webber and Rice write catchy tunes, but their use of demanding harmonies often results in offpitch notes from even good vocalists.
But the Leverett House production overcomes this difficulty as well. Both Kevin Costin, who plays Jesus, and Sarah Beatty, as Mary Magdalene, have extraordinary voices, and clever use of microphones helps the other actors compensate for what nature failed to provide.
FITTINGLY, Costin is the highlight of the production, from his moving rendition of "I Only Want To Say" in the garden at Gethsemane to the emotional final scenes of trial and crucifixion.
As Judas, Daniel Banks faces the challenge of playing one of history's great villains. When Webber and Rice wrote the part, they elected to present Judas as sympathetic--one of Jesus' followers who thinks that the movement and the adulation have gotten out of control.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Joseph Giani
In the Leverett Old Library
Through this weekend
Webber and Rice also put a unusual--yet believable--spin on the Gospels by adding sexual overtones to Jesus' relationship with Mary Magdalene. In the Leverett production, Costin and Beatty chose not to emphasize the romantic side, which allows the audience to appreciate their interaction without being sidetracked by its unusual perspective.
As Pontius Pilate, Steve Lyne adds depth to a one-dimensional Biblical character. He presents Pilate as a weak person who would like to save Jesus but doesn't have the strength of character to withstand pressure from the crowd.
For the most part, the choreography--by Banks--works well, relying on simple movements that wouldn't seem out of place at a house party. The scene where the crowd calls on Pilate to crucify Jesus, and a rock concert starring Simon Zealotes (Derek Newman) work particularly well.
If you're in the mood to see history in the making, go see this production of Superstar. Thanks to Giani's staging, you'll feel like you were really there.