Opening Nights: Jesus Christ Superstar

Two Jesuses and Two Judases tag-team it.

Brian Yorkey may recently have won a Pulitzer and a Tony for Next to Normal on Broadway, but I'd like to believe the highlight of his life is returning to his hometown Village Theatre to direct repertory faves. If you thought Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar is only fit for high-school stages, think again. And go again. This production is spectacular, but with a scheduling twist. Because its two stars, Michael K. Lee and Aaron Finley, alternate between Jesus and Judas, you really need to see it twice—as I did—to appreciate their completely different interpretations of savior and traitor. Lee's Christ has a lean, haunted, otherworldly quality that emphasizes the spiritual. With his lithe grace, he seems a god among men. Finley's doughier Jesus seems more like a tech nerd having a tragic, heroic daydream. Both iterations are fascinating, especially in contrast; but for me the Lee- as-Jesus production hits an extreme pitch of emotional poignancy that trumps the more skeptical, less mystical Finley-led version, especially in a couple of key scenes. Yet both have super voices. Lee yields a massive rendition of "Gethsemane" as Jesus. As Judas, singing "Heaven on Their Minds," the word "sour" audibly curdles on Finley's tongue. When the casting's reversed, they seem to be trying on someone else's shirt. And though the Webber/Tim Rice songs are four decades old, Yorkey and company have done much to update the show. Matthew Smucker's main set is a refuse-strewn netherspace amid decaying buildings—conjuring images of Ground Zero, its dusty air pierced by Alex Berry's surveilling searchlights. The opening scene bodes wonderful urban menace, as street toughs crawl out of the shadows, scale a gigantic chain-link fence, and dance a mashup of rave, pop, and hoedown styles (percussively enhanced by Doc Martens on their feet). Jesus wears a hoodie, Judas is buttoned-down and scholarly, while Mary Magdalene (Jennifer Paz) is punked out with pink- and yellow-streaked hair. Caiaphas and his priests sport long white coats and cereal bowl–sized yarmulkes. Pilate's Armani mafia harkens to fascism. We meet Herod (scrumptiously degenerate Brandon Whitehead) face-down, butt-up in a massage parlor, which makes his lyric "Jesus, I am overjoyed to meet you face to face" the funniest in the show. Yorkey also salts in references to glossy magazine culture, the Wall Street meltdown, torture, and even our own WTO protests, as helmeted jackboots rhythmically thwack batons on shields. It's a dazzling farrago of the topical and the spiritual. Better still, if you go twice, the second viewing is half-price.

 
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