This review of Jesus Christ Superstar performed at the Cultural Arts Playhouse was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 3 (2013) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Jesus Christ Superstar
Cultural Arts Playhouse (44 Lincoln Avenue, Rosyln Heights, NY)
Jesus Christ Superstar is a rock opera with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The show opened on Broadway on October 12, 1971 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre and closed on June 30, 1973 after 711 performances. The musical is loosely based on the Gospels' accounts of the last week of Jesus' life, beginning with the preparation for the arrival of Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem and ending with the crucifixion. It highlights political and interpersonal struggles that may have existed between Judas Iscariot and Jesus but which are not mentioned or referenced in the Bible. There was a Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2000 at the Ford Center that lasted for 161 performances and on March 22, 2012 another Broadway revival of the rock opera was staged at the Neil Simon Theatre, which ended July 1, 2012 after 116 performances.
This production of Jesus Christ Superstar has a fresh feel to it and features a very talented ensemble cast. The two standout performers were Michelle Belio, who played Mary Magdaline, and Roger Leonardis, who brought gravitas to the role of Pontius Pilate. Ms. Belio's rendition of "I Don't Know How To Love Him" captured my attention as I sat in awe of her amazing vocal abilities and her realistic portrayal of Mary Magdaline, a prostitute who is Jesus' current lover in the musical. This relationship and the increasing radical political activism of the followers of Jesus are objected to by Judas Iscariot, a long-time follower of Jesus, who believes his partnering with a prostitute and challenges to the existing Jewish religious hierarchy, places his ministry at risk, opens them up to criticism and takes them away from their original message of helping the poor, a goal now apparently abandoned by Jesus. Matthew Demaria, who plays Judas, has a powerful voice but I believe he was not the best choice for this part. With Jesus, Judas and Mary being the main characters in this rock opera, the jealousy, sexual tension and strategic disagreements need to be highlighted to make the play work and that was absent in this production. Also disappointing was Joe DeMaria, who played King Herod. "King Herod's Song" should have brought the house down but Mr. DeMaria wasn't strong enough to pull it off. Christopher Russo portrayed Jesus as an introverted character with delusions of grandeur who believed God was ordering his death and that he must comply. Mr. Russo's most brilliant moment came during his extraordinary rendition of "Gethsemane".
It is hard to discern Judas' true motives in betraying Jesus. Was he afraid the revolutionary activism of Jesus' followers would result in retaliation by Roman authorities causing the suffering of many Jews, did he believe the ministry had deviated from its original goals and purpose, or was Judas jealous of Mary Magdaline's new role in the ministry replacing him as Jesus' confidant and right-hand man. Another possible interpretation presented in the 2012 Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar was that Judas was sexually attracted to Jesus and got angry when Jesus turned his affections to Mary Magdaline, rationalizing his betrayal with the argument that Jesus having a relationship with a prostitute undermined Jesus' moral preaching and would ultimately lead to the destruction of the entire ministry. The one line in this rock opera that made me cringe was when Jesus confronted Judas for betraying him and said, "You Liar, You Judas!" using the word Judas to mean traitor well before it gained that secondary meaning.
All in all, I was very pleased with this production of Jesus Christ Superstar and I recommend you see it.