Change You Can Believe In
Upheavals in a society’s social pyramid are exhilarating, challenging, scary, doomed—depending on which rung of the ladder you may occupy. And, with history books bearing truer accounts than story books, the good guys don’t always land on top. Fact is, if you’re leading a power-to-the-people revolt, you probably are not going to be spending your final days in an old folks home. Think Gandhi. Think Martin Luther King Jr. And, looking back a couple of thousand years, think Jesus, that rogue celeb of Jerusalem.
Jesus Christ Superstar proves even more timely than when Artistic Director Michael Brindisi began rehearsals for this I-can’t-believe-it’s-the-first-time production at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. By opening night, the oligarchies of Tunisia and Egypt had toppled, and public uprisings in surrounding lands were delivering the same message with the urgency of a ticking time bomb: that the days of a corrupt ruling class were over. But in Bahrain and Yemen, populist messiahs are being shot. Iran’s Ayatollah has plenty of nails, hammers, and crosses at his disposal.
Thus, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera of 1971 proves that it’s no dated artifact of a former musical era. As it romps and rocks across Chan’s stage (and, indeed, through the aisles of the dinner theater), it segues from rock-and-roll anthems to graceful ballads that clearly have stood the test of time. If you’re not right there cheerleading with the title anthem, or misting up when Mary Magdalene sings “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” check your pulse.
As we’ve come to expect at the Chanhassen, the production succeeds (no: skyrockets!) because of its talented team of directors, designers, and ensemble members.
Nayna Ramey’s monochromatic set—timeworn blocks of stone accented by shiny metal bars of almost cruel countenance—forms a simple backdrop for the mesmerizing, fresh, and cheeky choreography of Tamara Kangas Erickson that steals the show.
Rich Hamson’s costumes exhibit a similar timeless/timely contrast, playing robes of muted earth tones against guys in trench coats and the menacing black leather jacket Judas sports. Of course, a Swedish-looking Jesus does wear white pajamas, but we’re spared Mother Mary dressed in blue.
Backed by Music Director Andrew Cooke’s classy band elevated at stage rear, and overly-amplified but otherwise engaging voices—each evoking personality as well as singing talent—Brindisi delivers a deliciously ebullient reading of the rock opera. He knows not only when to escalate the bounce, but also how to play the tender moments true, and they’ll break your heart more than the inevitable ending.
Chan newcomer Michelle Carter as Mary Magdalene is an earthy but tender chanteuse. Jared Oxborough’s clear and ringing Judas is spot-on. Veteran David Anthony Brinkley as a politically-cornered Pontius Pilate, plus a marathon cast of priests and disciples, provide fine performances by Chan regulars. Jay Albright, in particular, gets to steal the show with “King Herod’s Song,” a send-up of a Follies-style number. And as Jesus, Ben Bakken, from All Shook Up, Footloose, and Altar Boyz, adds another feisty renegade to his repertoire.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Through July 30
Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
501 W. 78th St., Bloomington