Jesus Christ Superstar (Half Moon Bay)
As a child of the late 1960’s and ‘70’s, one of my earliest “theatrical” memories is of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Their rock opera-telling of Christ’s last days on earth began as a concept album before being adapted for the theatre and eventually film. My sister owned an 8 track tape version of the original album, and being good (but young) Catholics, we listened to it incessantly. When the film version was released a couple of years later, I recall being confused by some of the images in the film’s trailer. While I was not the most attentive student at Catechism class, I simply didn’t recall reading about Jesus being chased through the desert by WWII tanks in the Bible.
Intentional anachronisms abound in any production of this rock opera, and so it is with Coastal Repertory Theatre’s production running now in Half Moon Bay under the direction of Joe Duffy. The original’s hippies, tight fitting bell bottom pants, and gaudy accessories have been replaced by grunge wear, leather and more as the story of Christ’s final days weaves in and out of modernity. If ever there were a show that didn’t need a plot recap, this is it. Suffice it to say the story is completely sung-through, which means you better have a damn good vocal cast to tell it.
This production has one of those, lead by Nick Newman in the lead role of Judas Iscariot. Yes, you read that right. Title aside, Jesus Christ Superstar is really about Judas. Not that Jesus isn’t important, mind you, but when it comes to this piece, it’s really about Judas’ conflicts with Jesus and what leads him to make his fateful decision. Villains are usually far more interesting to play, and Newman’s intense approach to the character worked, though that intensity seemed to get the better of him in a couple songs. There were moments when he seemed to be pushing his vocals further than they really needed to go.
Compared to Judas, Jesus comes off kind of bland, but that’s ok, I’m pretty sure that’s how he would have wanted it. Brendan Quirk is good in the role and also handles the vocals quite well, particularly with “Gethsemane”, melding performance and song with Jesus’ expression of doubt, fear and anger.
“I Don’t know How to Love Him” is probably the best known song from this production, and Lindsay Stark as Mary Magdalene nails it. John Rinaldi impresses in singing and character with his King Herod. The Herod scene/song is considered the lightest and is usually played for camp, but Duffy and Rinaldi go all out and take it all the way into the realm of drag. Ben Latham does a good job portraying the conflicted authority of Pilate.
All this fine work was almost undone by a never-ending series of audio problems. Microphones hissed, popped, and crackled throughout the performance. Sound levels were frequently spotty. The five-piece band, under the direction of Martin Rojas Dietrich, did a fine job handling the difficult and challenging score, but their placement backstage-left produced an often muffled sound and I just don’t feel that the power of Webber’s score came through enough. This may explain the occasional over-reaching vocals. As this was my first visit to the theatre, I can’t say whether this was a one-time deal or a regular occurrence. I understand the limitations that often come with non-traditional theatre spaces and as an audience member I try to make allowances for that, but the audio issues were substantial enough to regularly distract me from the action on stage. I wondered if they were distracting the performers as well because as good as they were individually, they just didn’t seem to gel for me into a complete show – or – the persistent audio problems kept ripping me out of the world of the play and left me with a sense of incompleteness. Either way, it’s not a good thing and a bit of a shame, because it took what is in essence a good show and prevented it from being better.
Among the other technical elements, set design by Doug McCurdy and lighting design by Valerie Clear were effective in evoking period and mood. Costume Designer Sue Joswiak met the challenge of dressing her cast for at least four distinctive periods from biblical to modern and no doubt had a lot of fun with Herod.
I liked what I saw. I liked who I saw. I was disappointed by what I frequently heard.
Jesus Christ Superstar
through August 16
Fri & Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 2pm
Half Moon Bay, California 94019
Photos Courtesy of Coastal Rep