All That Buzz: the Son of God in Song and Dance
Jesus Christ Superstar
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Dan Berwick '01
Produced by Rachel Altfest '01
Jessica Shapiro '01
James Carmichael '01
Music directed by John Fiore '01
Starring Jeff E. Fowler '00
Ryan Shrime '00
Jim Augustine '01
Loeb Mainstage Through Nov.20
When Jim Augustine '01, as Herod, takes to the stage for "Herod's Song" during the second act of Jesus Christ Superstar, audience members look and listen. Emerging from the mostly overwhelming and often confusing action of the first act, "Herod's Song" is the most engaging musical number to demonstrate that there may be hope for this production. Unlike most of the preceding two hours, there is evidence of characterization, dynamic choreography and a sudden, long-awaited connection between performers and observers.
While it is certainly unreasonable to expect all student performers to exhibit the kind of stage presence that Augustine shows off to such delight, this moment serves as a reminder of all that this production could have been, and all that it usually fails to achieve.
The greatest hurdle for any production of Superstar is the material itself. The show is less theater than song cycle, a collection of simple pop-inspired numbers that are memorable only for the wrong reasons. The exhilarating score, at the time of its debut, excited hope in the theater community that Andrew Lloyd Webber could turn out to be a great talent, but it also reminds us of the disappointment of his subsequent work, which has failed to transcend Superstar's artlessness. Tim Rice's lyrics are even worse: they consist of a series of sentimental clichs liberally scattered with forced and ineffective rhymes which range from "spoon-moon" obviousness to "admired-despised" awkwardness.
Nevertheless, past productions of this show have overcome these flaws by approaching the material in some very intelligent ways. If audience members are able to identify with the characters on stage or appreciate the enthusiasm and talent of the performers and creative team, or even enjoy the religious story at the show's center, they come away having, at the very least, enjoyed their time in the theater. The notable talent showcased in this production allows for basic enjoyment; but we cannot be faulted when we desire a more meaningful experience.
This is precisely the reason why the Loeb Mainstage production ultimately proves so ineffectual: director Daniel Berwick '01 has a style which approaches the material solely on its own terms, allowing the script (or rather the songs) to drive the show rather than maintaining control over the theatrical experience. This approach results in two things: a pervasive sense of confusion and a profound lack of connection between the audience and much of the action on stage. The palpable anticipation of what is arguably this season's major theatrical event was met with, and disappointed by, the repeated failure of the principals' body microphones, confounding the vocal efforts of the cast, and troubling the audience's ability to immerse in the musical.
Despite the familiarity of the story of Jesus Christ, countless audience members were overheard during intermission asking their companions concrete questions about the action of the play ("Who's that guy who keeps coming out and yelling?" "I think that's Judas..."). Whether or not the audience's competence at following the plot should be a consideration for the director, the fact is that many in attendance were reduced to a state of bewilderment.
The situation was not abated by the excessive cast: the chorus is referred to in the script as "The 50,000," and Berwick seems to have taken this a bit too literally, casting a truly overwhelming number of actors. Although a large cast, directed so as to focus rather than diffuse the audience on the central action, can work to a show's, this production's overabundance of actors only bolsters the audience's already confused state. Is the crowd happy with Jesus? Angry at him? Leprous? Is their back-slapping friendly, or is it violent? Although the level of dissonance in the musical accompaniment provides some clues, we are generally left to our own devices in answering these seemingly basic questions. In response to any lighting change on stage, a cacophony of rustling programs rises from the audience as people attempt to determine the setting of the next number.
This is not to say that the chorus members don't work hard; they clearly do. Despite the obstacle of an imbalanced sound design, which often permits the band to drown out the lyrics, it is clear that the group has the potential to sing admirably. However, as a rule, they seem more aware of what they should be doing at a given moment (in terms of choreography) than why they are doing it. This apparently aimless motion-playing, agitated by the compromised intelligibility of the lyrics, does regrettable damage to the finished product.
A single attempt has been made to remedy the audience's puzzlement, and its seemliness is tenuous at best: Berwick has the Priests who wish Jesus dead, led by a strong-voiced Steve Toub '01, demonstrate their depravity by smoking cigarettes (Judas is offered what appears to be a Marlboro Light when he chooses to join the dark side) and performing acts of homoeroticism during their suggestive dance breaks. The world of the Apostles is one of happiness, light, and heterosexuality; that of the priests is smoky, dark, and categorically gay.
Overall, though, even a pall of serious confusion is surmountable if a production manages to create some connection between the audience and the action on stage. However, in this rendition the audience is offered no character with whom to identify. As it is written,Superstar can be performed either as a story of Judas or one of Jesus. In the case of the former, the director must allow the audience to recognize the character of Judas as a narrator. He sings the expositional opening number and the flashy closing number; between these two, if he is visible and relevant to the audience on stage, he can become a sort of window to the action. Although he does spend a great deal of time on stage, Judas (a violently emotive Ryan Shrime '00) is swallowed up by the general hubbub except during his solo numbers.
On the other hand, if the evening's story is to belong to Jesus, his character must be seen as an actual superstar. He must be dynamic, commanding, and so appealing that the audience truly cares what happens to him. While Jeffery E. Fowler '00 turns in an admirable performance in the title role and his voice is quite strong, he seems to have been offered little in the way of character direction. For a brief moment, Fowler demonstrates to the audience's delight that he is, in fact, an energetic and charistmatic dancer, but a less than appreciative direction misuses his appeal by having him spend the majority of his time on stage in undefined wandering and characterization.
To say that Jesus Christ Superstar must be the story of one or the other of the two leads is admittedly the limited opinion of one critic; but to say that this production lacks that character direction needed to inspire sympathy is the right of any audience member. To exercise that or not becomes a question of what we demand of theater.
More promising are the design aspects of this production, which are strong. The costume design by Valerie de Charette '01 is attractive and appropriate. The versatile, oddly-colored sets of Brittain Bright '00 accommodate the cast with ease and economy while still providing for some interesting effects. The light design, credited to Mimi Asnes '01 and David Corlette, sometimes lacks subtlety and does less than it might to clarify some of the focus problems created by the staging, but it beautifully captures the flashy and spectacular nature of this musical. Jack Steadman '00, while plagued with technical problems, delivers an ambitious sound design. These elements coalesce to create a stunning climax seldom seen on the mainstage.
Superstar's choreography (by James Carmichael '01) is a mixed bag. Though it is occasionally interesting and almost always active, repetition (such as the repeated use of numerous backup dancers waving their arms rhythmically behind a solo singer) tends to weaken it. In addition to its ability to entertain, dance in musical theater should be a form of expression on par with acting and music. Carmichael frequently neglects this. In this piece, much of the dancing is generic, as if it were derived from a little-known early 1980's workout video called "Sweatin' to the Messiah."
Ultimately, this Superstar abuses the talent of many of the people involved, undermining their work with direction that fails to transcend a simple staged reading. And although there are numerous opportunities for the production to overcome some of its weaknesses, the thick fog on stage during the show's opening moments seems to roll into the audience and remain there until the final curtain falls.