Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 27, 2020

REVIEW: The Bushnell, Jesus Christ Superstar

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through March 1, 2020
by Sharon Smith

50 years is a long time for a show to be around, especially one that, for many, is so closely tied to the era in which it originated (1970-71.) But unlike the similarly themed “Godspell”, the music of which leans heavily on the sound of flower power, Jesus Christ Superstar relies on the power of rock, and that foundation opens up many more opportunities for reinvention.

It is Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s interpretation of the Gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus, told primarily from Judas’ point of view. This actually makes for a title character who is somewhat detached from the proceedings, and not nearly as magnetic as one would expect. After all, the tale is told by a detractor.

Fortunately, James Delisco Beeks, as Judas, is a powerful and effective performer. From questioning follower to outright betrayer, his passion and confusion are powerfully expressed in such numbers as “Heaven on Their Minds” and “Damned For All Time/Blood Money" and “Superstar.” Jenna Rubah, as Mary (Magdalene), has only one solo, the top-ten song “I Don't Know How to Love Him” but her presence and emotional connection to Jesus is felt throughout. As it is a show that is sung-through, without spoken dialogue, she gives an emotional performance through movement and physicality.

Since the music is so familiar, having been presented in multiple forms over the years, from concept album to (most recently) live TV, this production wisely chooses to let it stand on its own and concentrates on updating and reinventing the packaging. The choreography by Drew Mconie, and executed by the impressively large ensemble, is energetic, physical and modern, in numbers like “What’s The Buzz” and “The Temple.” Inventive use of props gives the dances an extra visual flourish.

The staging, set in an abandoned cathedral, has rock concert influences, and combined with the spectacular lighting, reinforces that impression. The choice to have Jesus and Judas play instruments reinforces the musical theater/concert hybrid. Some choices work better than others: the costuming is fairly contemporary and, in the case of a few fashion and style choices, slightly jarring and a bit distracting.

For those not familiar with the show, or the New Testament of the Bible, the visually stimulating staging, fast pacing and lack of dialogue may leave one a bit confused as to who is who and what is happening. But the constant throughout the night is the revolutionary score of Webber and Rice. In that regard, the show really is like a concert because one can sit back and enjoy the music and the sights, with little regard for the story, and still be entertained.