Cherone’s Jesus raises ‘Superstar’ spirit Globe 1994

The Boston Globe, April 4, 1994

Cherone’s Jesus raises ‘Superstar’ spirit


Produced by T Max and Eleanor Ramsay, directed by Mary Feuer, musical direction by Stephen Silbert. Starring Gary Cherone, Doug Thoms and Jodi Sussman. At: The Middle East Downstairs, Saturday afternoon. Repeats Arpil 6, 7, 10 and 11. In Providence at the Living Room April 13.

By Jim Sullivan, Globe Staff

This Easter, there almost wasn’t a “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Middle East. If it weren’t for the enthusiasm of Extreme singer Gary Cherone – the new guy who plays the title role, the closest thing to a rock superstar this local production has yet seen, and the first straight, white male, bare-chested-by-crucifixion-time Jesus – this might have been a dark Easter. And since it’s probably the nearest many rockers get to a religious experience, well, hey, . . .

“We were talking about taking a year off,” said associate producer and apostle/ensemble player Eleanor Ramsay Saturday afternoon between acts of the sold-out performance. “But then Gary, who saw the show last year, called up and wanted to do it. And we said, ‘Wait, we’d be nuts not to do this.’ “

“He turned the tide around,” added Bill (Pontius Pilate) Goffrier, who admitted he probably would have passed if Cherone hadn’t stepped in.

“We’re all more confident, more intense,” said Doug (Judas Iscariot) Thoms. “Gary’s awesome, and he’s an incredible team player. He knows this material cold. More than just being a rock star, he brings a real dignity and grace to it.”

Indeed, this year’s “Superstar” – less campy than earlier conceptions – is the best yet; most of the rest of the show’s run is sold out. Cherone – who has the lean, artist’s-rendition-of-Christ body, the long flowing hair and the scruffy beard – is perfect. He is serene, angry, tortured, perplexed – all in the right proportions. He also has the arena-rock pipes, similar to those of Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, who sang on the original album. Moreover, Cherone knows his way around a stage. And the spirituality that winds its way through Extreme can be found here in Cherone’s acting and singing. Might as well say it: This was the role Cherone was born to play.

T Max, publisher of the Boston fanzine The Noise, began staging “Superstar” four years ago with an assemblage of various Boston rock notables. The idea was to put on a version of the hoary Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock opera and cut it with a knowing, humorous punk-rock edge. Face it, the “Superstar” score is not without its schlock-rock components. Rock fans long ago learned what the Broadway crowd learned with “Evita” and “Cats”: Webber writes insanely catchy melodies but his metier is melodrama, his bailiwick is bombast and his oeuvre is overkill. The downside of going to any “Superstar” production is that the songs will run around your brain for weeks afterward.

Cherone got the glory during Saturday’s two-hour performance, but Thoms got to romp and stomp and ultimately hang and come back from the grave for yet one more song. (This, by the way, is one of the things that upset the traditionalists back in the early ’70s, that Judas was a halfway likable antihero; that and the fact that the opera ends with Christ’s death and omits a resurrection.) Thoms tore through “Damned for All Time” and “Blood Money.” Jodi Sussman, taking her first crack at Mary Magdalene, filled Miss Xanna Don’t’s shoes well and put a powerful spin on “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” The apostles fawned, got drunk and behaved like sycophants and boors. Towering Mick (Caiaphas) Maldonado and naval-suited Bill (Pilate) Goffrier each shone as bad guys: Maldonado had the best look of disdain and Goffrier had the best leer. Great exasperated Caiaphas line: “How do you deal with a man who is bigger than John was when John did his baptism thing?” Pat McGrath played the evil, beer-swilling clown Herod replete with fake urine stains on his pj’s. The money-changers in the temple passed out Ten Plagues Insurance Co. policies to audience members. Policeman Mikey Dee once again sported an LAPD shirt as he beat Jesus, who earlier had a “Flog Me” sign attached to his shirt.

OK, there was black humor. But there was lump-in-the-throat drama, too. At the end, Cherone struck a chilling pose on the cross; the disciples sat silently, mournfully, and, yes, the pain and loss spread through the hushed room.

The choreography and direction were sharp; the band, the Buzz, was top-flight; the only flaw was some dim lighting.

Since this is a ’70s-rooted production, we might as well pull another ’70s line out of the closet: As the Doobie Brothers might have it, this Jesus was just alright with me.

‘Superstar’ is reborn CNC 2000

‘Superstar’ is reborn
Boston Rock Opera resurrects signature show


November 3, 2000

Photo caption: Gary Cherone (Judas), Chris Mascara (Jesus) and Valerie Forgione (Marty) bring a rock sensibility to "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Rock ‘n’ roll and Andrew Lloyd Webber – they go together about as well as gin and milk. Unless you ask the Boston Rock Opera.

The BRO’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” has been its signature production for 10 years, a crowd favorite that’s packed the house at all its funky venues. And along the way, it’s made actors out of some of the biggest names on the local rock scene – including stars like Gary Cherone and Kay Hanley – who have not only joined past casts, but also confess their love of Lloyd Webber.

“One thing we’ve found from the beginning is that ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is a beloved piece,” says Eleanor Ramsay, producer of the BRO’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” revival that goes up Nov. 9-18, at the Tower Auditorium, at the Massachusetts College of Art.

“It’s a guilty pleasure for a lot of people” she says. “Valerie [Forgione] is in this band Mistle Thrush that has lots of indie cred, so when we approached her [to play Mary Magdalene], we didn’t know if she’d think it’s cool enough. But she was all over it. She said, ‘I’d love to do it.’ The same with Kay Hanley. So we more often find that they’re really into it.” Cherone, formerly of Extreme and Van Halen, is back for his third productionof “Jesus Christ Superstar” with the BRO (this time playing Judas), so it’s no surprise when he also admits the musical is one of his “guilty pleasures.”

He says people are just being elitist if they categorically snub Lloyd Webber. “How can you deny the merits of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’?” he asks. You’ve got to admire the willingness of these rockers to embrace Lloyd Webber, at the risk being arrested by the cool police.

It’s not only admirable, it’s also important – the future of some form of musical theater, or rock opera, probably depends on rockers who will takethese kinds of risks.

The audience that grew up with the music of Richard Rodgers or Irving Berlin is dying out, and the future of musical theater depends on people who can write in the vernacular of the new ticket-buying audience, and that’s rock.

And that’s pretty much the mission of the BRO, which has built its 10-year reputation first and foremost on “Jesus Christ Superstar.” (Other BRO highlights were two productions of the satirical, political piece “Preservation,” which even got a visit/consultation from Ray Davies of The Kinks, who wrote the show.)

The goal, all along, has been to bring a rock edge to the theater.

It’s tricky. Lots of people who set out with the intention of marrying rock and theater often end up with some hideous mutation of the two.

There seems to be some kind of inherent block that prevents theater from ever really rocking. That’s a criticism that’s been leveled at “Rent.” But so far the Boston Rock Opera has dodged that bullet.

“The idea is to explore the rock in theater, and the theater in rock,” says Ramsay. “A lot of times when rock music and theater combine, they sort of diffuse each other. So you really don’t have good rock, and you really don’t have great theater. We’re trying to keep that rock edge and tell stories.”

And one need has been obvious to the BRO from the start: If you want a rock sound, then get some rock blood in the band. That’s right, band – no orchestra in this production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Mainstays of the Boston rock scene like T Max and Mick Maldonado have been bringing a rock club mentality to BRO right from the start.

“I’ve found that it’s easier to teach rockers how to act than it is to teach actors how to rock,” says Ramsay.

As a result of that raw energy, those early productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar” are almost legendary – first crammed into the little space upstairs at the Middle East in 1991, and then revived downstairs.

“I think we made a splash right from the beginning with some of those early Middle East shows,” says Ramsay. “They may have been a technical mess,” she adds with a laugh. “But there was a real raw energy that was so refreshing. The show wasn’t watered down, it went back to the rock roots of the album. Our shows have gotten better technically, but we’ve maintained that rock voice, that rock band, that rock volume.”

Now the production faces its biggest test to date: Not only does the cast have more musical theater singers than ever before, but it’s also getting staged on a proscenium stage for the first time.

But Ramsay believes the BRO’s integrity won’t be compromised by the venue.

“Our attitude is rock,” she says. “On the other hand, I think we do stuff that musical theater aficionados can enjoy. I don’t think we’re alienating the more general theater audience. If they like musicals, they’ll probably

like this show, as long as they can stand the volume.”

And maybe the best testimony to the fact that the Boston Rock Opera really rocks is the fact that a guy like Cherone keeps coming back. “They’ve become my family,” says Cherone, describing his relationship with BRO. “If there’s a role that’s right for me [in future shows], I’m in.”

“Jesus Christ Superstar” plays Nov. 9-18, at the Tower Auditorium at the Massachusetts College of Art. Tickets are $20. Call (617) 423-NEXT.

©CNC|Tab Newspapers

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.

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.”

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.