Souping up Boston’s “Superstar” Globe 1996

The Boston Globe, April 3, 1996, Wednesday, City Edition
Souping up Boston’s “Superstar” By Jim Sullivan, Globe Staff

There is no Joseph, no technicolor dreamcoat and no toothy Donny Osmond in this production. For that brand of Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice biblical cheese, you must go to the Colonial Theatre and pay $ 40 or so for the privilege.

For the other, more pungent brand of Lloyd Webber/Rice biblical cheese, you can go to the Lansdowne Street Playhouse and pay only $ 15 to see Boston Rock Opera’s fifth production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the early ’70s warhorse that the company fir st kicked up, almost as a lark, in 1991.

Lest you think the cheese metaphor is dismissive, just listen to the woman who plays Mary Magdalene, Kay Hanley of the band Letters to Cleo: “I love cheese and schmaltz, and I’m trailer park all the way. I have really bad taste. . . . I so desperately wanted to have something to do with this. I’ve been singing this stuff in the shower since I was 7.”

You want rock star power? You got it in Gary Cherone, lead singer of Extreme, as well as in Hanley. Cherone returns from the 1994 production (the troupe took last year off) in the title role. This will be the first singing he’s done in public since the last Extreme tour ended in August of last year. Cherone underwent surgery for a node on his vocal cords, followed by rehabilitation. “This, for me, is a coming-out party,” he says.

Doug Thoms, the guy who gets the best songs to sing and the most dramatic battles to wage, is Judas Iscariot. It’s a role he has filled since the inception. Thoms is “the real star of the show,” says Pat McGrath, who plays Herod – “after me, of course .”

What has changed since the early days? Well, Jesus is played by a straight white man. No one in the cast is likely to be drunk. The apostles at the Last Supper don’t even drink real wine anymore – it’s cranberry juice, just like in real theater. Linda (James the Apostle) Viens, of the band Crown Electric Co., says things took a more serious turn when Cherone joined the cast in 1994. “I kind of miss the rough-hewn days,” she says, “but it had to grow. Bands grow.”

One of the cops who lashes Jesus, played by Mikey Dee, no longer sports the letters LAPD on his back (an old joke), but still munches doughnuts. (“I fought for that!” he says.) King Herod, long played as a drunken lout by the Wheelers and Dealers’ McGr ath, has gone through some character development. Still, Herod does have a harem of six fawning, scantily clad gals and one scantily clad guy. And his one turn onstage remains hilarious.

It’s not quite the wing-and-a-prayer production of old. The show, co-produced by Eleanor Ramsay and T Max, has shifted from the Middle East Downstairs – not exactly a theater – to the more spacious Lansdowne Street Playhouse for 11 performances, starti ng tomorrow night and running through April 20.

The 30-odd players have room to move on a set designed by Kathy Rosen. About $ 5,000 has been spent on staging. Two professional directors – John Whiteside of the Huntington Theatre Company and Jane Bulger of the Abydos Movement Collaborative – are run ning the show.

The new musical director is guitarist Rich Gilbert, formerly of Concussion Ensemble and the Zulus, who assembled the eight-piece band six weeks ago. “It’s bombastic,” says Gilbert of the score, “and I’m going out of my way to rock it as hard as I can.” One of his primary challenges is to play loud but not overwhelm the vocalists. “It’s pretty difficult to learn,” Gilbert says of the music. “It’s complicated, a lot of left turns. Even if you know it in your head, it’s hard to execute. The themes repeat in different keys, there are slight variations.”

Just how catchy are the songs?

“Every night for the last month I go home to bed and have a different series of songs burning away in my head and I can’t get them out,” says Gilbert. “And the first thing in the morning. And in the middle of the day. But I love the music. I hate every thing else Lloyd Webber ever wrote. It’s almost as if it’s a different person.”

The buzz heard around the set during Sunday night’s final dress rehearsal: “It’s all been turned up a notch.” Or as Thoms puts it: “It has come from the Little Rascals putting on a show in a barn to a show that Ted Neely” – who played Christ in the mov ie, on Broadway and in the touring production – “should take a look at and consider his position in the world.” Adopting a booming pro-wrestler voice, Thoms bellows, “We blow Broadway away! We are the best!”

“Jesus Christ Superstar” has always been something of a guilty pleasure for rock fans, especially rock fans who came of musical age in the punk era, but grew up during the age of the rock opera. When the punks came along, many rock fans began to see th ose who penned rock operas and concept albums as highbrow poseurs and conspicuous overachievers. The BRO’s implicit acknowledgment of that viewpoint in the early days came with its rough-and-tumble look, no-budget set and semi-shambolic performances. With a nod and a wink.

“I would say the kitsch is there at the level it was,” says Thoms. “The drunken Herod, the cop with the doughnut – but we’ve amplified the seriousness of the show, especially me. I think we’ve all come to the point where we realize this is a story abou t someone who was most beloved, and we all have that in our heads now.”

Cherone says, “In the beginning, it was a kitschy rock ‘n’ roll take on it, and it just developed. It had to go somewhere. I don’t think you could do this every year just being on that level. It has evolved into a production and a play and a musical – but we still have to get the camp in there. If you don’t get the camp, people go home being depressed, because of the drama and sadness of it. The first act is happy and colorful, but from the Last Supper on, it’s pretty much a downer.”

Hanley says that despite her many gigs with Letters to Cleo, her audition for the producers and directors of this show was “terrifying. I’ve sung in front of thousands of people in my life, but to sing a song in a living room with four people sitting o n a couch. . . . I did the big emotional, uplifting bridge to ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him,’ and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

How does she see her role?

“To me,” says Hanley, “Mary’s a woman in love. I think she’s a beautiful character, I love her. Of course, she’s tormented by the fact that she is in love with a man who is ostensibly chaste, and it’s difficult for her.”

Cherone sees his role this way: “Basically, he’s got it together and, come second act, he gets beat up. We’ve gone through rehearsal a few times and I’m already hurt.”

Thoms, who’s betrayed a few Jesuses in his day, relates Cherone’s role in “Superstar” to his position in Extreme. “A lot of people do things to him – ‘Help me, Jesus,’ ‘Heal me, Jesus.’ He gets pulled in a million different directions, which is true to Gary. . . . The man is the coolest thing on the face of this planet. He came in the first year knowing the whole book, and he was the most unassuming, unproblematic, straight- ahead guy.”