Jesus Christ not so Superstar at Tibbits
COLDWATER, Mich.–Popularity and interest in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1970 sung-through rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar has had a resurgence, with powerful productions in southwest Michigan recently at The Barn and Western Michigan University, as well as national attention with a live concert performance on NBC led by John Legend last Easter.
Though firmly rooted in the ethos of the 1970s, the music is classic. And the story—a reimagining of the last week of Jesus Christ’s life, ending with his crucifixion—remains among the greatest ever told, and with tremendous potential to create deep emotional stirrings in those who witness it.
On many levels, Jesus Christ Superstar should be painful to watch, particularly for Christian believers. But not for the reasons the current production at Tibbits Opera House is distressing.
Though Director Kevin Halpin makes some effective staging decisions, produces wonderful choreography, and has a largely talented cast with a couple of truly outstanding performances, terribly flawed technical choices and overall ineffectual direction creates an emotionally confusing and lackluster show.
The most obvious problem here is lighting design. With a light grid that hangs so low the audience sees the lights themselves rather than their illuminating effects and is blinded by full-level flashing backlighting, the house is often flooded with light that makes the action impossible to see at best, and at worst is migraine–if not stroke–producing for the audience. One wonders from where Halpin directed the show. The balcony? Or maybe Milwaukee? Or did he simply offer no input to Lighting Designer Catie Blencowe and the follow spot operators who, on opening night, performed their job as if they were drunk? The performers almost laughably had to chase their own light or were simply undetectable opening night, which utterly destroyed the show’s high-valence moments.
It also appears as if the leads needed much more heavy-handed direction. Jack Gerhard is a very gently Jesus with a sweetly soulful voice; however, he’s mellow to the point of stoned, and not in a John 8:7 way. For example, in the climactic scene in which Jesus is being tortured with 39 lashings, Gerhard shows no agony. And despite fun anachronistic staging choices, such as a red carpet being rolled out, and a crowd scene multiplied by blank masks as well as followers as reporters with microphones, his Jesus doesn’t have the presence of celebrity.
Though Jovan E. Watlington hits amazing and chilling high notes, his Judas is confusing. Quite literally in that he doesn’t enunciate many consonants, so the words he sings are largely lost. And on an emotional level, he goes from zero to 60 without any real character development, so the climactic moment from a tortured soul comes across as an unexpected psychotic break.
However, Morgan Rucker creates worlds of depth and complexity with the very limited and underwritten role of Mary Magdalene. Her sensuality and soulfulness is outstanding, and her phrasing a revelation. She makes the gorgeous “Everything’s Alright,” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” even more so, and creates the loveliest of harmonies in “Could We Start Again Please?” with David Ossman as Peter, who also gives one of the strongest performances on stage. Which is wonderful when he has the spotlight, but is a problem when he pulls focus in ensemble numbers.
Though the ensemble numbers are generally good because of Halpin’s choreography, full of high kicks and chene turns with bodies as crucifixes, brought to fruition by very talented dancers in Emily Westing’s period costumes with plenty of bell bottoms, gold lame, and bare midriffs and chests.
Johnmichael Bohach’s multi-level set is appropriately gritty, against the backdrop of the upstage exposed brick wall. And Music Director Cheryl VanDuzen leads an excellent five-piece band on an upstage platform.
But even the strong elements of this production aren’t enough to offset the tremendous flaws that keep this quite excellent rock musical from fulfilling its potential. When done well, it’s a deeply moving tearjerker. But the Kleenex boxes at the back of the house were left untouched at Tibbits.