Boston Rock Opera’s ‘Superstar’ is gripping – again

Boston Rock Opera’s ‘Superstar’ is gripping – again

By Jim Sullivan, Globe Staff, 11/13/2000

How can a musical that is so unspeakably awful in the hands of a professional touring company become so gripping and gut-wrenching in the hands of a local group of musicians and actors? Maybe because it’s not a job, but an adventure. Maybe, it’s because the actor-musicians grew up with the work and find it a thrill to inhabit the roles. Maybe it’s because of the rock ‘n’ roll backbone. At any rate, such is the case with ”Jesus Christ Superstar,” the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera, once again kicked up by Boston Rock Opera, the company formed on a shoestring budget seven years ago by producer Eleanor Ramsay and musical director Mick Maldonado. (They actually started doing ”Superstar” in 1991 before the company took shape.)

”Jesus Christ Superstar,” starring Chris Mascara in the title role and former Jesus – Gary Cherone (ex-Extreme and Van Halen singer) as Judas Iscariot, is being staged at Massachusetts College of Art’s Tower Auditorium under the direction of John Whiteside. It’s the first time this production is being performed at a theater and not a rock club. Over time, this ”Superstar” has grown from likably amateurish – the apostles drank real wine and got a bit tipsy during the first Last Supper – to something striking and professional.

The staging is simple and stark: a large metal grid at the rear of the stage, with a translucent scrim behind (shielding the band), and three platforms in front. Near the end, Cherone’s Judas climbs the grid, anguished by his betrayal of Christ, and dramatically hangs himself. Then, of course, Christ’s cross is put up against the grid, and Mascara’s Jesus goes through his death throes.

The gender-and-race-blind cast – a mix of newcomers and old faves including Peter Moore (Pontius Pilate), Pat McGrath (King Herod), and Maldonado (Caiaphas) – dresses in a mix of period and modern costumes. A tag team of annoying reporters (Deborah Emmons, Lisa McColgan, and Mike Bidwell) stick microphones and cameras in the faces of the players. The big burly Gestapo-like cops (Stan LeRoy and George Bonin) whack Jesus with batons during ”The 39 Lashes.” McGrath’s boozy, smarmy, and highly debauched Herod is, as always, a hoot, and surrounded by scantily clad ensemble members of both genders. McGrath, in fabulous gold lame, goes off-script for a few comments about Christ’s raising folks from the dead (”how Goth!”), cracks a sacrilegious double-entendre or two, and a few other goodies.

The crux of it all, of course, is the Jesus/Judas conflict, and in many, this is as much about Judas as Jesus. (Rice and Lloyd-Webber’s original working title was ”The Last Five Days of Judas Iscariot.”) The limber, brooding, dyed-blond Cherone is superb – in Mascara’s face about Jesus’s supposed miscalcuations and singing the best songs of the show, ”Heaven on Their Minds,” ”Damned for All Time/Blood Money,” a posthumous, rousing ”Superstar,” among them. Mascara plays Jesus as more human than Godlike, and experiences a full range of emotion from acceptance of his fate to rage against the merchants in the temple. Valerie Forgione, as Mary Magdalene, shines during her featured songs, ”Everything’s Alright,” ”Can We Start Again Please?” and ”I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” belting out these cathartic songs in a manner far from her work with her ethereal rock band Mistle Thrush.

There were a few glitches at the show we caught, Wednesday’s preview – some popping mikes, some dropped vocals (especially Karin Parker’s Simon Zealotes), a slight stumble at the start of ”What’s the Buzz?” a lighting miscue that caused Rachel Morales, one of three dancers playing The Fates, to stumble and break her foot as she exited a scene.

But overall this a production of passion, pathos, and, yes, a little kitsch. It’s respectful of the book, but has fun with it, too. The band, led by keyboardist/flutist Suzi Lee, shifts gears from hook-laden rockers to dissonant mood pieces expertly. It’s an ambitious production of primo Lloyd Webber, before his descent into super-schmaltz.

This story ran on page C08 of the Boston Globe on 11/13/2000. © Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.