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The Arts
July 19-25, 2006

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'Jesus Christ Superstar'

Photograph by Jeanine Brown
Yoked by Fate: Adam Campbell (left) plays Judas to Kit Wilder's Jesus in City Lights' production of 'Jesus Christ Superstar.'

What Is Truth?

City Lights mounts a complex, conflicted 'Jesus Christ Superstar'

By Marianne Messina

IF YOU don't think of City Lights as a company that does big musicals, it's probably time to think again. Its balls-out production of Jesus Christ Superstar is big-house powerful, in spite of the occasional neck-crane situation where high-rise platform meets low-rise seat. Director Lisa Mallette has not only used every inch of space to encompass the audience in 360 degrees of sound and action, she has staged the musical with a clever eye for counterpoint.

Judas (Adam Campbell) and Jesus (Kit Wilder) often sing at each other from opposing platforms across the "circle" of the acting space. The tops and ledges of designer Ron Gasparinetti's stone walls, stairways and archways (all having that "under construction" look) carry constant entrances and exits, from jubilant crowds singing "Hosanna" to angry crowds singing "Crucify him!" Musically and lyrically, Superstar is a chaos of voices, ensembles, call and response, superimposed lines and quicksilver thematic changes. Everyone from agitator Simon the zealot (Daniel Harper wearing camouflage and revolutionary beret) to Judas has a vision, and Pilate puts his finger on it when he sings, "What is truth? ... We all have truths." It's as if the Jesus story takes place in a maelstrom of babble.

And Mallette has laid the production out like a mandala, drawing everything down from the ledges and doorways onto center floor, where the trial and the Passion ultimately take place. Better yet, City Lights works the miracle of weighing in on the big questions while serving up exquisite entertainment. The campy Herod number is a crowd-pleaser, with Thomas Theriot an irresistible ham as cabaret queen. Both Wilder and Campbell—who earned clamorous approval at a recent show—hit breath-stopping high notes, dredging up convincing shouts and pulling off moving sweet notes. Plus Campbell delivers a hot (yet to peak) rap in the "Superstar" reprise that really gives it some bite. Another brilliant directorial choice (Gus Kambeitz, musical director) brings guitarist Tim Rupel onstage for Judas' solo numbers, "Damned" and "Death." In a sort of Steve Vai/Crossroads duel with the devil, Judas responds violently to the peals and wails of guitar as if the sounds are his personal demons.

This production is full of little strokes of genius. The lepers ("See my eyes, I can hardly see ...") visit Jesus in a dream (a visually awesome scene with wrapped bodies inch-worming along the ground toward corners, platforms and stairs), so in that first instant of waking, he sees his friends as his tormenters. The painful pauses and soft strains in Campbell's "Blood Money" accedence make his inner tension palpable, and when he finally takes up the purse, he cradles it, rocking back and forth like a small boy. The staging of the whipping showed the collusion of each individual, as the actors came up and slapped, shoved, twisted Wilder's suspended body with "blood" on their hands. And many in the audience at the show I attended enjoyed a humorous reference to the Da Vinci painting in the "Last Supper" number.

Though the Pharisees' occasional drop into inaudible range takes some of the chill out of their vocals, the menace is restored by dark or sinister lighting over their black-robed presence. And some questionable substitutions (like vibes sounds for brass lines meant to sound militaristic) don't mar an incredible job by the band at maintaining both the teeth and the sweetness in this sometimes jarring music, including a lovely 12-string performance by Bill Rupel (brother of Tim).

The City Lights ending of this rock opera is an entire work of art in its own right. To describe it would probably make me a spoiler, but I will say it has a chilling way of connecting the Passion and the Dark Ages, of calling up the cycle of life, the need for silence, the attraction of darkness—it's really another article.

Jesus Christ Superstar, a City Lights Theater Company production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2 or 7pm through Aug. 20 at City Lights, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Gala opening July 15. Tickets are $15-$25. (408.295.4200)

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