Electric, Star-Studded “Superstar” Globe 1996

The Boston Globe © 1996 Globe Newspaper Company
April 5, 1996, Friday, City Edition
Electric, Star-Studded “Superstar”

STAGE REVIEW Musical in two acts by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice; Directed by Jane Bulger and John Whiteside. Music direction, Rich Gilbert; Set Design, Kathy Rosen. Presented by Boston Rock Opera at The Lansdowne Street Playhouse, through April 20

By Jim Sullivan, Globe Staff

“Everything by Andrew Lloyd Webber gets trashed.” – Kay (Mary Magdalene) Hanley, in an interview.

Rarely have truer words been spoken. The 800-pound gorilla of contemporary musical theater is a cash cow for the industry and a punching bag for critics. But it’s not going to happen this time. The Boston Rock Opera’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar ,” the big early splash by Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, is a delight: Hard-hitting and somber at times, a hilarious hoot at others. You’ll laugh along with King Herod (Pat McGrath) and his harem; you’ll snicker at the doughnut-munching cop (Mikey D ee); you’ll chortle at the drunken apostles, swilling wine and spewing blather at the Last Supper. But I defy you not to have a lump in your throat as Judas Iscariot (Doug Thoms) hangs himself and Jesus Christ (Gary Cherone) is whipped and then crucified. (Hope we’re not giving away too much of the plot here.)

It’s low-budget by most standards, but a leap up for the rock ‘n’ rollers behind it. For one thing, there are two bona fide rock stars here: Cherone from Extreme and Hanley from Letters to Cleo. (Keeping in the spirit of this production, one member of the rabble wears an Extreme 1986 tour T-shirt.) For another, there’s the feeling that this has grown into a somewhat more serious project. It’s not quite the campfest of yore, even if Herod’s cheery debauchery has evolved from, well, as Sinatra might put it, booze to broads.

In the past, BRO producers Eleanor Ramsay and T Max have put on this traditional Easter show at the Middle East. At the Lansdowne Street Playhouse, they actually have a stage, a space for cavorting and dancing without collision, and superb lighting. Th ey also have professsional direction from the Huntington Theatre’s John Whiteside and the Abydos Collective’s Jane Bulger, who re-introduced the idea of the Fates (originally called Furies in the Broadway show). These three lavender-clad ladies hover and lurk about the action, facilitate what must be: They hand a towel to Pontius Pilate (a wickedly demented “Clockwork Orange” Peter Moore), then give Judas his rope.

Judas – played with typical ferocity by Thoms – is the star of this show in many ways. Lloyd Webber and Rice originally titled this “The Last Five Days of Judas Iscariot.” Thoms’ songs – such as “Heaven on Their Minds,” “Damned For All Time/Blood Money ” and the back-from-the-dead screamer “Superstar” – are the most dramatic, the most rocking. He gets to raise issues of martyrdom and predestination; he gets to threaten to spoil the grand plan by not betraying Jesus. One of the best supporting parts is Caiaphas, the High Priest, played by charter BRO member Mick Maldonado. Maldonado sinks deeply into the character’s dark wit and evil nature. Especially wicked is his overture to Judas: “We’ll pay you with silver/ Cash on the nail.” Ouch.

As Jesus, Cherone – who looks just like the popular artist’s conception of the man – must practice restraint. He is, generally, an accepting, passive reactor, getting to blow off steam only when, say, the moneychangers corrupt the temple or when he’s b esieged by beggars. Cherone lets out a mighty roar of “Heal yourself!” at that point – the guy’s got a lot of pent-up frustration. Later, much more human than Godlike, he implores of God, “Why should I die?” and “What will be my reward?” in “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).” That’s Cherone’s show-stopper, where, in true arena-rock fashion, he gets to go from a whisper to a scream and back again.

Hanley, as Mary Magdalene, is there to soothe and maybe even stimulate. You can’t help but feel an erotic charge when she goes to wipe Cherone’s face; Hanley’s version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is a weepy, emotional peak.

The eight-piece band led by guitarist Rich Gilbert plays the score perfectly, giving ample room for the singers but rocking hard nonetheless.