Passion Sunday has come and gone, but the passion and drama live on in Burnsville in The Chameleon Theatre Circle’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar. This staging of the classic musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber is recast by co-directors Jim Vogel and Bradley Donaldson as a pot of mob violence on the verge of boiling over. The result is striking, arresting, and often frightening in its power.
When the music of Jesus Christ Superstar was first released 45 years ago, the BBC banned its broadcast on the grounds that its content was sacrilegious. This ban proved much more temporary than the musical’s success, which was enormous. As stagings proliferated around the world, however, many of the once-controversial elements in the story—the sympathetic treatment of Judas, erotic overtones in Mary Magdalene’s relationship with Jesus, and Jesus’s struggles with his impending crucifixion—have been toned down.
“Toned down” scarcely describes CTC’s production. Set in the intimate confines of the Ames Center for the Performing Arts’s Black Box Theatre, this staging puts the audience right in the middle of the story’s many crowds. In “The Temple,” homeless people erupt from underneath the seats, shoot out from the steps, and seem to pop from every nook and cranny to converge on and surround Jesus (Ty Hudson). The result is overwhelming, and not just for the Messiah—the visual and aural volume in this scene is claustrophobic, and makes Judas (Lars Lee)’s turn to extreme measures that much more plausible.
The vocal standouts of this cast are Hudson, Lee, Lauren Diesch (as Mary Magdalene) and Garrick Dietze (as Pilate). Diesch’s rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is stellar without being saccharine, and both Hudson and Lee are riveting in their swan songs. The pit orchestra is quite large for the space, and the sound mix errs on the side of massive volume. Those who still have excellent hearing might want to tote earplugs for a few scenes and sit farther away from the band, while those with less perfect hearing will probably hear everything just fine.
One of the more interesting aspects of this staging is the decision to cast the chorus as an ever-changing set of mobs—there are, until Peter’s denial, no distinct apostles besides Judas. As a backstage expedient, it certainly has its perks; as an onstage device, the results are mixed and sometimes confusing. Its narrative effect is to concentrate the dramatic emphasis on the solo characters—they are, in a sense, made into special outcasts and even more at risk of the whims of mobs threatening violence and riot. The choreography by Marlo Miller seems to have taken a page from 1970s dance videos, a blast from the past that fits well with the character of the score. As for the scenery, well—mentioning more about that would spoil the surprise. Just don’t call security on any homeless people wandering the theatre—that might be part of the chorus.