It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Jesus Christ! Superman? No, we’re not being facetious. Or blasphemous. But simply trying to reflect some of the sentiments associated with this much-awaited, much-hyped production. Many say it was “good” (some “very good” or a few even “exceptional”). Others, “bad”. And we’re yet to encounter a dyspeptic enough [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Making a song and dance out of nothing – or someone – rather special

Wijith De Chickera thinks it’s just a musical, not the masterpiece it’s made out to be

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Jesus Christ! Superman? No, we’re not being facetious. Or blasphemous. But simply trying to reflect some of the sentiments associated with this much-awaited, much-hyped production. Many say it was “good” (some “very good” or a few even “exceptional”). Others, “bad”. And we’re yet to encounter a dyspeptic enough thespian who would damn this Workshop presentation of the iconic theatre event as “ugly”. Like the messianic rabbi whose alter ego clove history in half, this rock musical’s local outing has divided audiences down the middle.

Chrisantha de Silva in the role of Jesus Christ. Pic by Susantha Liyanawatte

Quite unlike Jesus the original – who, in C. S. Lewis’s memorable understanding of Him, could not be more than one of three things (mad, deluded, or Who He said He was) – Jesus the dramatic adaptation is more versatile. It is, was, and has been many things to many people. Colombo entertained prophetic utterances about this production in a manner that built up an almost un-fulfill-able expectation. The hysteria during the showing over ten days, including a brace of matinee performances, climaxed last weekend; and its orgasmic echoes are still reverberating around the internet. Sometime soon the hype and the hoopla must die down and not be resurrected, or someone is going to get hurt.

One had a bad feeling about undertaking to review JCS (as Jesus Christ Superstar has come to be abbreviated by aficionados). For one, theatrical egos are notoriously fragile – and when the stakes (no pun intended) are as high as this, one is bound to be hanged higher than Haman for an encomium anything less than adulatory. For another, some elements among the dramatis personae (pun intended) had prophesied that this would be “the best thing this side of paradise” (what I have paraphrased, stays paraphrased.). Last but not least, the propaganda machine was turning over at a rapid rate of daily Facebook posts, churning out self-congratulatory plaudits, and converting standing ovations into hallelujah choruses. So it was with no small measure of fear and trembling that we undertook the commission to pen a piece in response to this production of biblical proportions.

Well what more can one say, after a preamble like that, than to confess that the experience was a very pleasant one? Of course, when I say pleasant, I mean that it was the kind of rock musical that shakes, rattles, and rolls all one’s stereotypical expectations. In the most pleasurably painful way, a.k.a. “pity and awe” – even if it applies only to tragedies. Kudos to TR and ALW (as Sir Tim Rice and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber have come to be known, respectively) for taking a central event in human history and rendering it so disturbingly comfortable and comfortingly disturbing in the same out-of-breath breath. Jerome L. & Co. can take a well-deserved bow, too, for the authenticity and faithfulness of their interpretation. Cast, crew, sponsors, and supporters have evidently worked really hard and demonstrably harmoniously to put on a dozen memorable evenings and afternoons; and they can be justifiably happy at having pulled off quite a coup. No one but insiders would know the emotional highs of hitting the high notes, in every sense of the word, or feel the heartbreak of having to hang up their caligae after such a spectacular run. 

Maybe we need to quibble a bit now – for the sake of balance, transparency, and honesty. It was good, yea verily even very good… but not as exceptional as the enthusiastic encomiums would lead one to expect. And it quite likely did not deserve all – if any – of the standing ovations it received, night after night. (Colombo, O Colombo, have you no sense of proportion? I dare you to name a major theatrical production of the year and a tad more under review that has not received – and unashamedly entertained – an embarrassment of standing ovations! Can we please stop making a song and dance out of straightforward, if sometimes quite sophisticated, presentations – which should receive bravos and encores and no more?) That is this reviewer’s view… and you’re welcome to it, dears, as much as you’re entitled to a rationale for my take on JCS.

First impressions count. (As that wag said, you don’t get a second chance to make one.) On the night that your aging reviewer strained to catch the ethos of the libretto, some of the performers were doing a pretty poor job of diction – either that, or the sound system let the major players down rather terribly in the first half of the show. Words don’t come easy… but the meaning’s the thing on which the play hinges. Thankfully, things improved in the remainder of that particular outing.
Then there was the unfortunate give and take between musical prowess and dramatic ability. Some of the Marys could sing really well; others could emote quite movingly. Rare were the instances when the Magdalene did both things at the same time. One can be maudlin without being moving, and more’s the pity that the audience was moved more by one Mary’s sincere efforts than her effortless singing and emoting.

And other technical constraints, in addition to a few items of aesthetics or production values, got in the way of an outstanding rendition. For one, the stage was often too crowded (yes, we know the Wendt is not as wide as one would wish; but must you pack the apron with gyrating gartered-girls?). For another, the dance ensembles were not all always in sync with each other – some impresarios over-performed their dance routines (lovely and alluring as they were to watch) and thereby compromised some of the otherwise scintillating choreography. Last in this line-up of flubs, flops, and fiascoes was the callow youth of many of the minor characters; making a mockery of some scenes – such as the quite unintentional hilarity generated by the most effete Roman detachment in all staged representations of the Empire (save, possibly, Mel Brooks’ History of the World). Really, what’s with all the declining and falling about? 

Least of the audience’s worries were the falsettos that Jesus and Judas had to tenor out. One may not agree with the motives of the music-makers in giving emotions such as rage and anguished doubt such high notes, but one wishes for a broader range for the principal singers than two of the players managed to convince the audience they could achieve. They fell flat. In the limit, Judas’ angst got a small blow to the solar plexus, making him breathy; and Jesus’ anger in the temple-cleansing scene was scratchy and out-of-character for just one awkward moment. Minor quibbles to be sure… but do minus some marks from the standing ovations, won’t you, dears?

By now, we realize, that many if not most fans, friends, and family members of the estimated seven thousand strong full houses and front of house gangs which saw JCS must be up in arms. Crucify him, I’ll bet you’re muttering under your breath or bawling it out! Be fair… Stay calm, and take the balanced view… And just to demonstrate my bona fides, let me tell you which bits “really rocked” (to borrow a phrase from the helpful self-evaluations on Facebook).

On the night I caught the action, several performances stood out. Mario de Soyza as a nattily attired Pilate was convincingly cool, cruel, capricious, and commanding in turn. Dominic Keller was the archetypal ruler-scoundrel-epicure with his arch nods, arching eyebrows, and arched insinuations and inflections; and the whole song-and-dance routine there (Try It And See) was vastly amusing. Chrisantha de Silva cut a sorry figure (He’s Just A Man) as gentle Jesus, meek and mild (or JCS; weak and wild) to start off with… but came into his own in ‘act two’ – especially in the Gethsemane scene. Ashan Algama as Caiaphas was quite a revelation: A brooding, brilliantly twisted baritone whose dark, piercing looks and low morals (and equally low register) were barely contained by his intense interpretation of the priestly cynic and political manipulator. To my mind, though, Gehan Blok stole the show from under Jesus’ cross – agony in the garden, agonizingly ambiguous portrayal, and all. His brother-cum-betrayer was bravely carved out of a solid block of metal and fire and ice that was equal parts pushy friend, disappointed patriot, pretender to the throne of first among equals, and predestined (or so he thought, tragically and terrifyingly in a terrific unraveling of soul into damnation) to make Jesus Christ’s Judas a Super-starring role.

No evaluation of a Jerome production (or is that ‘reproduction’?) would be complete without a nod to the masters of stage, light, music, and sets. (I mean the Workshoppers, no other!) This is high-fidelity transposition of West End or Broadway standards to increasingly hi-tech third world boards. But one must pause to ask whether that is in fact the need of the hour… In a year in which there has been a gamut of genres from Rag to Evita to Sherlock Holmes to A Streetcar Named Desire, one can’t complain too long or loudly! We will be happier, though, if the spectrum would include more straight, satirical, and absurd oeuvres. Or happiest still if local talent would – with Heaven On Their Minds (let us say, in keeping with the spirit of a show that ended with a cleverly staged resurrection, and not the awful false finale of Jesus’ death and burial) turn to the Man of four solid gospels and give us an authentic, original, and interpretive play on the God who died and rose again. Could We Start Again, Please? Try It And See!

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