The rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar" is more about the nature of fame than religion, and when it comes to glitz and glam, Cockpit in Court has pulled out all the stops in a production commemorating the 20th anniversary of both the show and the theater.
The cast of more than 50 has to be one of the largest in Cockpit's history, and there's nothing subtle about the visual effects director F. Scott Black has created on stage.
When Pontius Pilate sings of an ominous dream, he stands in a trapdoor with red light and stage smoke seeping up around him. And though there is a certain amount of gratifying shock value to seeing Judas suspended from a noose near the end of the show, it is more than a mite excessive to use a similar effect -- and probably the same harness and wire -- in the scene when Jesus literally ascends heavenward off the cross.
And yet, the production's small, comparatively quiet moments suggest why this early Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical still attracts converts. These rare, understated scenes succeed in large part thanks to the more modulated performances of Paul McIntosh in the title role and particularly Susan Shanahan-Wathen as Mary Magdalene.
Shanahan-Wathen literally stops the show with her stirring rendition of "I Don't Know How To Love Him," a song that demonstrates her impressive singing voice as well as the dramatic flair that colors it. Similarly, in his reflective solos, "Poor Jerusalem" and "Gethsemane," McIntosh conveys the gentle intensity behind the show's highly human depiction of Jesus.
But these moving, gentle moments are the exception in a production whose chief characteristic is over-abundance. Moving 50-plus people around on Cockpit's stage would be a challenge under any circumstances, but it's further complicated by Clare P. Rowe's set, which consists primarily of a spiral ramp resembling a roller-coaster track.
Choreographer Liese Weber Frutchey does her best to fill every inch of the stage with movement; Judas and his seven Spandex-clad tormentors even cling to the lighting towers at times. But for the most part, the playing space so limits the options that blocking and choreography are reduced to little more than getting the large cast on and off as efficiently as possible.
One of the more intriguing aspects of "Superstar" is that its creators assigned Judas' story equal weight with Jesus'. Unfortunately, John F. Guyton has difficulty meeting the demands of the role, both vocally and dramatically. His tendency to gulp his words renders many of the lyrics indecipherable -- a problem that is especially regrettable in a musical with no spoken dialogue and one that is exacerbated in the big choral numbers.
"Superstar" is the show that made Lloyd Webber a superstar, and the music certainly hints at what was to come. But in many ways, this anniversary production looks more dated than a balding, pony-tailed hippie, and it's louder, in every sense, than the most raucous, tie-dyed T-shirt.
'Jesus Christ Superstar'
When: Tonight through Saturday at 8; Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Where: Cockpit in Court, Essex Community College.
Call: (410) 522-1269.