Lawrence Toppman

Theatre Charlotte’s ‘Superstar’ still rocks

Jesus (Joe McCourt) carries his cross toward Golgotha, while Judas (Chris Chandler, right) and the female chorus offer ironic comment in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Theatre Charlotte.
Jesus (Joe McCourt) carries his cross toward Golgotha, while Judas (Chris Chandler, right) and the female chorus offer ironic comment in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Theatre Charlotte. Posey Bartol

If you’re under 50, you won’t recall the furor “Jesus Christ Superstar” caused when it topped the Billboard charts in 1970, then became a Broadway show the following year.

A Messiah who argued with God, asking to be let off from his bloody destiny? A Judas who claimed Jesus wanted to be betrayed, possibly to force an uprising among his followers? Twelve mildly stoned groupies who sang “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle/Knew that I could make it if I tried/Then when we retire, we can write the gospels/So they’ll still talk about us when we die”?

Sacrilege! Yet not just a product of the cynical ’60s, as we see in Theatre Charlotte’s version. It still has power to startle, if not shock, and make us think about the title character.

Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice called this a rock opera, which sounded high-falutin’ but makes sense. It does rock, and it contains musical motifs that follow characters and link songs. Whatever you think of the subject, the young writers’ musical chops hold up.

Director Billy Ensley, who directed a stimulating “Rent” in the season-ending slot four years ago, makes full use of the stage.

Characters enter from the audience, from the wings and atop staircases that flank the space where the six-piece band sits onstage. He overreaches only in the use of rear projection, which can be valuable when it reveals action offstage (the hanging of Judas) but redundant and distracting when it shows what we’re already watching.

That technology signals a production that steps out of time. Costumes are modern (riot gear for cops, sexy red dresses for the cooing female chorus) and traditional (flowing robes for Jesus). Perhaps we’re meant to think of the story as taking place over and over down to the present, as we accept or reject Christ ourselves.

Ensley elicited fresh takes on characters. Mary Magdalene (captivating Tracie Frank) really seems like a prostitute who has found love – of what kind, she’s not sure – for the first time and doesn’t know how to react. (She sings “Everything’s Alright” to Judas, as well as to Jesus. She wants everyone to be happy.)

Joe McCourt’s Jesus seems exhausted, a man near collapse; in the strongly sung “Gethsemane,” he genuinely wants to understand God’s plan, rather than just railing at heaven. By contrast, Chris Chandler’s Judas begins as a restless neurotic and descends into madness. (Chandler does this well but lapses into speech-singing too often. Many in the cast do, either because they can’t hit certain notes or for emphasis.)

Steve Bryan delivers the typical campily entertaining Herod, but Pilate becomes more complex than usual in the hands of J. Michael Beech. He’s mystified by the bloodthirstiness of the crowd, anxious about his own standing and curious about Jesus’ thoughts.

Pilate sings, “We both have truths/Are mine the same as yours?” Unlike the jesting prefect of tradition, he really seems to want to know. Moments like that keep this show from seeming dated or stale. We’re all asking the same question ourselves – or should be.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

Theatre Charlotte revives the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical about the last few days in the life of the title character.

WHEN: Through May 31 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Also 2:30 p.m. May 23.

WHERE: Theatre Charlotte, 501 Queens Rd.

TICKETS: $27.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or carolinatix.org.

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