“Jesus Christ Superstar” explodes on stage

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“Jesus Christ Superstar” explodes on stage

Roy Zhu '21, Editor-in-Chief

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Jesus Christ: Superstar is a groundbreaking musical on many fronts. It was one of the first, and certainly the most famous, to put forth the idea that the words “rock” and “opera” could ever be used together in the same sentence, much less coupled together in a unique genre. The original idea of Superstar started with a concept album produced by famed composer-lyricist duo Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice in 1970. After surging to success, Superstar moved onto the Broadway stage, continuing to break ground by being one of the first Broadway musicals to cast a black actor in a starring role (as Judas). Everything about the musical defied expectations: emblematic of the counter-cultural turmoil of the 70s, Superstar was a story about the Passion of Christ chock full of moral ambiguity, with Judas Iscariot in a central role, sung to the tune of progressive rock. And in deliberate contrast to traditional musicals, the rhythm and consistent beat of the rock backdrop meant a constantly lively performance that rarely deviated from being active and cathartic.

BC High’s theatrical productions always feature a discussion of important themes and questions raised by a performance; while I’m sure I cannot rival Mr. Tinti-Kane’s run-through of those in Superstar (as was given at the beginning of the musical), I will give my best attempt at it. Central to the plot of the musical is the fickleness of human nature and how it contributes to the rise and fall of heroes in the public eye, with Jesus shown as both the savior and relief needed by the people of Israel, and then as the object of unfulfilled glory as he seems to allow his movement to fall apart before the shocked eyes of his followers. Jesus is portrayed as a passionate but exhausted leader, sometimes frustrated, frequently angry, and resentful of the cult of personality that has developed around him: in this sense, he is shockingly human and defies our notion of what a perfect, unflawed Messiah looks like. In the musical, Jesus is as much a victim of his popularity as he is a beneficiary of it, and the chaos and mob mentality of his following is made clear by Judas’ bitter complaints against things “getting out of hand”. Ultimately, Superstar challenges our ideal understanding of the crucifixion and presents a more nuanced series of events that reflects the raw emotion we often don’t see in the clean, contemporary story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The BC High production of Jesus Christ Superstar once again brought a diverse cast of actors and actresses, including guest performers from schools across Massachusetts. The role of Judas was played by seasoned Dever Player Thomas Potts ‘20 and DJ Ormond ‘19 played Jesus, both veterans of multiple Dever performances and whose experience shined in the musical. Mary Magdalene was played by Veronica Cavalcanti, a senior at Newton North High School, returning for her second performance with the Dever Players this year. Superstar definitely benefited from a cast of experienced Dever Players, including Alec Carstoiu ‘19 as Pontius Pilate and Michael Richardson ‘20 as King Herod. Making their Dever Players debut in Superstar are Jack Ryan ‘19, Nicole Dalton ‘21, Seamus McGlennon ‘21, Jack Mullin ‘22, Josh Shao ‘22, and James Delaney ‘22 (and of course, President Grace Cotter Reagan). Perhaps even more importantly than in other musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar’s ensemble cast was essential to the choreography and tone of this rock opera, and the often-underappreciated technical crew deserve a special shoutout for planning out such an expansive set.

The lighting and set design of Superstar felt groundbreaking, especially in its usage of the Bulger space. By opting for a more minimalist design without intricate set details, Superstar seemed to fit its avant-garde appeal as a revolutionary rock musical, and placed more emphasis on showing off performances and choreography. But this doesn’t mean the set design wasn’t creative: the tech crew once again showed its innovativeness by creating a cross shaped platform extending into the center aisle, and the three center platforms on center stage provided endless opportunity for the characters to use them in any which way. The lighting also reflected this creative spirit, with spotlights shining behind the audience for Jesus’ entrance and LED strips adorning the cross extension. Perhaps the only well-intentioned light element that proved a bit distracting was the light placed at the back of the stage shining out into the audience, but which from my vantage point sitting near center aisle seemed to blaze directly into my retina. The best part of the lighting, in my opinion however, was the ability of the lights to reinforce the feel of the musical as a rock concert, with bright bold colors flooding the stage to highlight increased tension and reminding me of concert pyrotechnics. The new, eye-catching element of the musical was the two screens to the left and right of the stage, which I thought at first to be distracting, but then, as it shifted from displaying abstract screensaver-ish patterns to zooming in on the singers’ faces, I realized added to the rock concert aesthetic. The use of new areas of the Bulger space also deserves praise, giving us the opportunity to have coins showered upon us from the catwalk, see dancers pour into the aisle, and watch Jesus approach from behind the audience. No discussion of this performance would be complete, though, without costume design. The costuming for Superstar was visually stunning, with each performer donning face paint and leather, but also wearing individually unique styles that gave the musical a messier, chaotic look (although the black “grim reaper” look of the Sanhedrin may have been a bit too kitschy). The entirety of the stagecraft for Superstar felt like the culmination of a year of boundary-pushing design, bringing the musical to life not only in front of but also around the audience.

In terms of the performance aspect of Superstar, the most important feature and most well-executed for this piece was the choreography, which heightened the anthem-like rock melodies and, especially when the dancers spilled out into the aisles, brought the musical to stunning life. The dance routines seemed to be very well-rehearsed and thought out, with no technical mishaps, despite the level of coordination required between performers for some of them. In fact, the entire ensemble cast seemed to have put in impressive amounts of work for their roles, recognizing the fact that Superstar is a heavily decentralized musical, driven forward the consistent presence of the ensemble with occasional solos. Speaking of consistently present, the choice to use a professional pit (rock?) orchestra again this year (Les Mis also had one) definitely made sense (after all, it wouldn’t be a rock opera without a band), though occasionally the sound overpowered the onstage singing and sometimes I wished there was more than one active mic for the ensemble and others to sing at. Though I don’t claim to be an expert in this, I wonder if it would make it more interesting to opt for the on-stage performers to create a rhythm of their own using the props available to them, while still relying on the pit orchestra. The main musical feature, though, was the singing. Though I can’t mention every great performance in Superstar, some of the ones I loved most played into the dramatic, emotional rock ambience of the musical. I think Judas (Thomas Potts ‘20) channeled the angsty, raw bite of classic rock and mixed it very well with the emotional turmoil of his character, especially in heated exchanges with Jesus (DJ Ormond ‘19). And I have the give credit for someone so able to glare malevolently down at people from so many different vantage points. Mary Magdalene, played by senior Veronica Cavalcanti, gave brilliant contrast against the angstier side of rock with clear and precise solos that audibly captured center stage. Also intriguing, and wonderfully absurd, was the surrealness of King Herod’s solo (Michael Richardson ‘20), which reminded me of a vaudeville/circus master routine that creatively referenced Jesus’ role as performance artist, and I especially appreciated the lengths to which the costuming emphasized the “showiness” of his character, more so than in other performances of the musical. Other subtle performance touches included the raspiness of the Sanhedrin voices, especially Caiaphas (Brady Connolly ‘21), and (if merely because duets can be difficult and don’t appear as commonly in Superstar) Peter (Braden Misiaszek ‘22) and Mary’s duet of “Could We Start Again Please”.

BC High certainly did not refrain from letting Jesus Christ: Superstar be as revolutionary as it was when it first premiered, and for that I am grateful. Bright, brilliant costuming, aggressive growls, creative set design (and possibly the first-ever Dever Players cameo by a sitting school president) all made Superstar intense, powerful, and most definitely fun to watch. Refreshingly modern and especially impressive in our tradition-heavy Catholic school, Jesus Christ: Superstar is truly a celebration of the Dever Players and Bulger theatre itself, representing the amount of energy and craft that is emblematic of a great performance.

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