January brings to San Antonio not one but two rockin’ versions of the Gospels: the Woodlawn Theatre’s deeply regrettable (and recently closed) JC Rocks! and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s venerable but still bitchin’ Jesus Christ Superstar, which opens at the Majestic this weekend. The two shows provide, as well, a study in contrasts. While the karaoke JC Rocks! sounded like someone had set an iPod to “shuffle” and called it the Word of God, Tim Rice — the librettist and co-creator of Superstar — did what artists are supposed to do: craft a compelling, original take on one of the most famous narratives in Western culture. Drawing a parallel between the stratospheric rise of Christ and the similarly meteoric rise of pop stars like Elvis and The Beatles, Rice complicates the episodic plot of the Gospels by using Judas as a framing device — an incarnation of flawed humanity, torn between Jesus’ abundant charisma and his outlandish claims to divinity. (As a sort of bonus, Judas also gets one of Lloyd Webber’s best songs, the wildly syncopated cri de coeur “Heaven on Their Minds.” Judas is so upset, he segues to 7/8. Now that’s angst.) While there are definitely cheesy moments in the pop opera — it’s tough to hear Mary Magdalene crooning “I Don’t Know How to Loooooooooove Hiiiiiiiiim” without giggling — the ending passion of the Christ, if staged effectively, packs a wallop.
Of course, there are ways to stage Superstar disastrously, such as the Zach Scott’s ill-conceived, bilingual version that ran two years ago in Austin. If memory serves, their Jesucristo Superestrella actually featured a female flamenco dance during Jesus’ last, agonizing moments (when clearly a crucifixion is better served by a cha-cha). This was sometime after Jesús was arrested in Gethsemane by the U.S. Border Patrol and well after I’d given up on the whole conceit as hopelessly heavy-handed.
I haven’t seen this national touring production — helmed by Dallett Norris — but I suspect that it’s a “traditional” staging, and not a reinvention along the lines of Gale Edwards’ hip and decidedly alternative take that quickly closed on Broadway in 2000. (That particular production is mostly preserved on a nifty DVD: one for the Netflix queue. Snuggle up with your s.o. while contemplating spiky hair and original sin.)
The current touring production is improbably headlined by Ted Neeley, star of the 1973 film version, and also a Jesus on the Great White Way. Neeley turns 66 this year, or exactly twice the age of the character he portrays. Of course, this sort of thing happens in opera all the time — septuagenarian Madame Butterflies are my favorite kind — still, it’s disconcerting to see a Jesus old enough to turn water into Metamucil. But if Neeley still has the vocal pipes — and by all accounts, he does — this might be your last chance to see Superstar as a true throwback to Broadway’s past: when Hair and The Wiz were considered the cutting edge of musical theater’s rocking-and-rolling (and Webber’s ubiquitous Cats weren’t even yet kittens).