VSMT finds savior in ‘Superstar’

Thomas Emerson

I do love a good Playbill. They’re not my most favorite things in the world, but they rank a close fourth behind gardening, musicals and Fred Astaire.

A good Playbill, with glossy, tri-color cover makes you fall in love with a show you’ve yet to see. But upon seeing the Playbill for VSMT’s production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” I became distraught.

Covered with tortured, darkly-shaded photographs of the cast, it looked rather like Rodin’s “Gates of Hell.” And its heavy-handed proclamation – “Experience the last days of Jesus through the eyes of his betrayer” – made me afraid that Mel Gibson had somehow gotten his hands on the production. I prepared for the worst.

After all, “Superstar” is nothing but a campy bit of ’70s fluff, devoid of anything remotely resembling a message. Can one hope to find any seriousness in a passion play where apostles proclaim “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle?”

Even if Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber had wanted to write a serious musical, they were probably too stoned in 1970 to do anything of the sort.

The original Broadway production – endowed by director Tom O’Horgan with giant chalices and swastika-covered priests – perfectly captured Webber’s nonsensical spectacle, unlike the bland, “serious” revival that recently flopped on Broadway.

I was afraid VSMT’s production would make the revival’s mistake and attempt to locate meaning where none could be found.

When the overture began, my heart fell. (Since I played my trusty violin in “Superstar’s” orchestra, I’ll not say much about the music – except that it’s been a while since a VSMT orchestra has sounded so good.)

Cast members raced violently around the stage to the music’s driving beat, leaving me confused. Were they training for a marathon? Were they being attacked by WMDs?

Perhaps this staging was part of the “modern” vision referred to in the director’s note – one that “Superstar” stubbornly resists.

Sure, you can update the clothes, but the funky ’70s rock doesn’t disappear. You can build a modern-looking set (this production’s set looked more middle school than modern), but the musical’s hippie values can’t be Febreezed away.

My spirits began to rise when Michael Barr took the stage. What a voice: his bravura tenor soared luxuriantly over the auditorium, thankfully free from his usual brogue.

Although there isn’t much to Webber’s Judas, Barr artfully captured what he could, hungry eyes exuding ambition and desire for love.

But an otherwise excellent performance was marred by just one excruciatingly self-indulgent pause (nothing more than a make-out session with scantily-clad dancers) before the final notes of the title song. It sucked every bit of momentum from the show.

This poor resolution to “Superstar” was one of director Joseph Cutalo’s few false steps. Aside from a painfully misplaced slow-mo flogging during the sublime “Could We Start Again?” Cutalo kept the production adroitly skipping along, letting laughs explode and tears flow when appropriate.

His deliciously campy direction of the high priest scenes was an unexpected delight; however, his concept for the flogging of Christ, almost completely stolen from the 2001 revival, could have been a tad more original.

There was nothing unoriginal about Daniel McFadden’s Jesus. I was particularly impressed by his nuanced acting, which avoided all suffering-savior stereotypes – those old-time images of Jesus with eyes rolling in pain like a rabid horse.

But towards the end of the show, McFadden consistently planted himself front and center (as if there were a sticker there that read “For Divine Strength, Stand Here”), apparently left without any blocking from the director.

Still, McFadden excellently played Jesus as both experienced and fresh-faced (although at times a tad too wide-eyed), stern yet sensual.

And his voice, which expertly navigated the pitfalls of the “Gethsemane” aria, was one of those perfectly soothing ones that should be bottled and sold for comfort on cold, stormy evenings.

It’s no surprise that Mary Magdalene doesn’t know how to love a Jesus like this. Yes, Mary Magadalene’s a prostitute in “Superstar,” a living Kama Sutra: “I’ve had so many men before and in very many ways.” Naughty!

But when I first heard that Chesley Turner had been cast as Mary Magdalene, I was skeptical. After all, there’s a reason no one ever chose Audrey Hepburn to play Salome – she’s all wrong.

But with the choicest material of the show in her hands, Turner made the part her own, erasing all memories of Yvonne Elliman – picked to be the original Mary by Webber himself.

Turner’s Magdalene was well-executed, down to her subtle head-toss that called Jesus into her arms before the superb “Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”

If Webber does anything right (which I’m loathe to admit), it’s his character-driven ballads for females. Turner nailed each one with a waveringly seductive voice reminiscent of Edith Piaf. I think I may even have wiped a tear from my eye.

Despite their crazed antics during the overture, I gradually warmed to the rest of the ensemble.

King Herod was a delight: I’d pay any day to see Brian Lamsback’s deliciously over-the-top performances. Kudos to Beth Cahill (Annas) and her eerie black eye shadow, and to energetic Katie O’Leary who made me want to leap onstage and dance along during “Simon Zealots.”

“Zealots” was perhaps this production’s most vibrant number, mostly thanks to Justin Damm’s high-octane performance, and jazzy choreography reminiscent of a Brittney Spears music video.

But even though the choreographer (Amanda Murray) created a fun dance for “Zealots,” her work was rather lackluster everywhere else: during “What’s the Buzz,” the cast launched into “jazz squares” and “the grapevine.”

Now if I were choreographing a show, those would be the steps I’d use – and I know less about dance than Ken Jennings knows about losing.

While the dancing may have been cliché, it kept the show tripping along. And that’s all “Superstar” really needs: a brisk pace, free from any overly-weighty moments.

By the final curtain, after the artfully-directed crucifixion scene, I was sure VSMT’s production had accomplished just that. My Playbill-induced doubts were finally erased.

Everything would have been perfect, had there been no curtain calls. Call me traditional, but I found it terribly jarring to see Jesus reappear moments after his death, smiling yet still bloody.

“Strange,” I thought. “Didn’t it take Jesus three days to rise from the dead?” But I’m just picky. After all, such an excellent production deserves every moment of applause it can get. Bravo, VSMT.