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Performers rise to Superstar vocal challenges

When Jesus Christ Superstar debuted in 1970, some religious groups condemned it as blasphemous.
Photo by Ed Ellis

When Jesus Christ Superstar debuted in 1970, some religious groups condemned it as blasphemous. It was controversial to be sure, but what was beyond dispute was that the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical was a groundbreaking work, blending rock music with classical backing in a manner that had never been done before, the first ‘rock opera'.

But that was 1970 — that's 47 years ago, if you're keeping track — and Superstar has since become a classic of musical theatre (Rolling Stone readers listed it as the second greatest musical ever). The controversy over it has faded to the point where it can safely be played in a dinner theatre location — like the Mayfield Dinner Theatre, until June 11 — and nobody complains. (I will spare you a synopsis of the plot. I'm guessing you know the general idea.)

For someone like me, who knows every note and every word of the original Superstar recording, the success or failure of a stage show comes down to the production. I'm presold on the music. The only questions are, will the performers deliver, and will the nearly 50-year-old music hold up, or will it sound like a relic of 1970s Top 40 radio?

I am happy to report that they do, and it does.

Maybe it's because I grew up with Superstar (I was in my early teens when it came to prominence in the famous 'Brown Album' boxed LP set, complete with lyric book, which I still have), but to my ears it still sounds as good as ever. Ultimately, the success or failure of a Superstar production comes down to the singing. Many of the songs were written to be sung in the vocal shredding, 1970s power ballad style, and if the performers aren't up to the task, you're in trouble. But everyone comes through admirably.

Scrapping the togas and sandals, Superstar performers are mostly in modern dress, which means we have a Jesus in jeans and a bandana. Brad Wiebe gets the starring role, and unlike the skinny, sunken cheek Ted Neely of the 1973 film, Wiebe is a man's man kind of Jesus. He nails JC (sorry), but the star of the show is the tortured Judas, played by Robert Markus. Bad guys are always meatier roles, and Markus makes the most of the original Biblical bad boy. Pamela Gordon, as Mary Magdalene, beautifully delivers her standout songs, I Don't Know How to Love Him and Everything's Alright.

The only problem with Superstar is the incongruity of such a powerful drama performed in a dinner theatre setting. Jesus gets the holy crap kicked out of him, and (spoiler alert!) the hero dies in the end, which is kind of tough to take while we're still digesting the extra slice of red velvet cake you squirreled away before the buffet closed. But maybe that's just me.

Bottom line is this: Jesus Christ Superstar is as good as ever. If you're a fan of the music, this production will not disappoint.