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THEATER | "Jesus Christ Superstar" at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres: Crucifixion blues
Having not previously seen any production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, when I arrived at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres on Wednesday night, I really couldn't believe that the show was actually going to be what I'd heard it was: a run-through of Jesus's greatest hits in swinging 60s style, climaxing with an acid-jazz crucifixion. But yes, that is exactly what it is. Jesus rises from the dead just in time for the curtain call, and the first thing he does is pull Judas in to hug it out.
I was raised Catholic, and I can only imagine that when this show premiered on Broadway in 1971, there were a lot of people who thought, "You see? This is why Vatican II was a bad idea. You said it was just about singing some English-language hymns, but it's a slippery slope from 'Jesus Loves Me' to Jesus buggin' out like he's having a bad trip."
As a sincere attempt to make the Passion of the Christ accessible to the hip-hugged masses, Jesus Christ Superstar is a classic artifact of the Flower Power generation. I did not realize just how unremittingly groovy the show would be from beginning to end. Jesus dances among his scarf-waving followers like he's leading the New Christy Minstrels to a hootenanny, and no sooner does Judas betray Jesus with a kiss than the trumpet comes in with some late-night lowdown blues. Aw, man, crucifixion is such a drag.
Despite the fact that Nayna Ramey's set is just a couple of shag carpets shy of being a room in the House on the Rock—dig the band tucked away in an alcove—the Chanhassen's current production minimizes the camp factor, trading Summer of Love garb for post-apocalyptic costuming (by Rich Hamson) that evokes Keanu Reeves's messianic turn in The Matrix. There's even an ecumenical gesture: "The scarves used in our production as the principal prop of expression," writes director Michael Brindisi in a program note, "are 'Spirit Scarves' or 'Khatas.' The 'Khata' is a ceremonial scarf used in Tibet and Mongolia." Hello, Dali!
The Chanhassen is, as audiences are frequently reminded by way of explaining why they paid $77 for that pasty Chicken Chanhassen, a professional theater that employs Actors' Equity performers. Indeed, the quality of this show is much more audible than edible: as Jesus, Ben Bakken throws the money-changers out of the temple with a piercing falsetto that's scarier than Ben Kenobi's krayt dragon impression. Webber also puts Judas through some intense vocal acrobatics, which Jared Oxborough is largely up to. Jay Albright makes a strong impression as a searingly sarcastic Herod; as Mary Magdalene, Michelle Carter serenades her savior with buttery tones; and Sean Nugent grounds Caiaphas with his resonant bass. (My friend Katie and I had a debate over whether the absurdly high platform boots that make Nugent as tall as his fellow priests were meant to be noticed or not. I suggested that many members of the audience might take them to be orthopedic soles.)
In his program note, Brindisi avers that the production team has "approached this material with reverence, love and hope." That certainly seems to be true: the production is about as reverent as you can get when you're selling Jesus Christ Superstar souvenir water bottles for tabletop sipping and when lyricist Tim Rice writes lines like "God, thy will is hard/ But you hold every card." (At one point, I think I heard Judas stomp off muttering, "Oh, Christ!") The Chanhassen wall calendar included in my press kit came pre-marked with a reminder that on March 20, I should "Talk to Pastor about booking church group for JC Superstar on Palm Sunday!"
As long as you know what you're getting into—of which I hope I've given you some idea—this is an easy show to recommend, as a strong staging of a cultural touchstone that can be approached as either a time capsule or, if you're feelin' it, a meditation on faith. Just grab your Khata, pull on your platform boots, and groove on down that road to revelation.
©2011 Jay Gabler