A Rebel Without a Guitar
By: James Thomas, November 11, 2011
Don Parkinson - Bobby Price stars in the title role of "Jesus Christ Superstar."
Amidst our local, national, and global turmoil, Falmouth Theatre Guild presents its fall production, the hit rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.
It’s a timely choice, and a daring one. The official promo includes a reminder that the Jesus is, at heart, “a social and political rebel.”
In case your biblical history is a bit rusty, here’s a quick refresher:
Approximately 500 years before the dramatis loci, the Israelites reoccupied the Holy Land after a period in exile. Their homecoming was never on their own terms, and by Jesus’ time, Roman overlords had enacted a brutal system of regional governance rife with patronage and oppression; political, religious, economic, and social upheaval had driven people into the streets.
Enter Jesus Christ, superstar. He’s a teacher and healer from the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee, and he’s gaining a following. As the action unfolds, he travels the countryside while his disciples jockey for position and favor, blissfully ignorant that the authorities are plotting to destroy them. Embittered Judas betrays Jesus to their mutual demise.
For those about to rock...
With respect to the Theatre Guild’s production, it is fundamentally flawed in its presentation as musical theater and not rock opera. This show dates from the high, holy days of conceptual rock ‘n roll, and absolutely must be staged as such.
The decision to seat the pit orchestra without an electric guitar is endlessly puzzling. The guitar lays down the identity of the score, not only by hammering the jagged thematic riffs, but also by breathing spirit into quieter numbers like the lovely “Everything’s Alright.”
The attempt to supplant guitar with keyboards just doesn’t jive.
Disappointment in the lacking rock identity is compounded by the compromise of what could have been two stellar performances. The Judas role is the hitching post around which the action swirls, and Alex Valentine shines in rock tenor's best tradition. The same is true of Corinne Coates, whose voice is afire with Haight-Ashbury heritage, singing Mary Magdalene.
Unfortunately, neither gets a well-deserved drive from the orchestra.
FTG rises to the challenge
The vocals for the title role are among the most difficult in Superstar repertoire, yet Bobby Price handles them admirably. His acting work is better still, coaxing the essential questions: who is this man, and what burden does he carry?
Rob Bowerman convincingly animates Pontius Pilate as a sniveling political hack solely concerned with his own advancement.
Peter Cook—who stands six inches higher than everyone else in the cast before donning a towering headpiece—is sinister as the devious high priest Caiaphas.
Both music and drama are enhanced by absolutely superb lighting design from director Eric Gomes and FTG veteran Matthew Gould, who paint visual wonders and emotional depth onto a sparse and angular set.
Deeply imaginative and harkening back to the liquid lightshow traditions of the contemporary period, the lighting melds together traces of everything from The Who’s iconic green lasers to Pink Floyd’s famous prism—and is arguably worth the price of admission in itself.
Overall, there is much to appreciate. Jesus Christ Superstar is an ambitious choice for a small theater; in fact, the intimacy is part of what makes this thought-provoking spectacle a pleasing experience.
The play frames a powerful reminder that societies have confronted divisive questions of self-governance and the social contract from the beginning. For all its heterodoxy, the voice of Jesus of Nazareth raises challenging questions in Highfield Theater, just as it has around the world for the past two millennia.