'Superstar' still rocks as an opera

  • Updated: February 22, 2011 - 10:38 AM

Review: Andrew Lloyd Webber's songs and score sound great in Chanhassen's production. The story, which once seemed controversial in how it was told, feels tame.

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Ben Bakken as Jesus in the last supper scence of the Chanhassen's production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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"Jesus Christ Superstar" claimed several identities when it broke across America 40 years ago: rock opera, youthful counterculture statement and religious manifest for the humanity of its title character. The question today is, on what terms can we still count ourselves believers?

Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's production, which opened Friday, makes a case primarily for the capacity of Andrew Lloyd Webber's music. The suburban theater has rarely -- if ever -- reverberated with such sonic intensity and so many earwig tunes. Days later, they are still carving their way through the brain. As a penetrating cultural and spiritual venture, though, "Superstar" doesn't cut as it once did.

Michael Brindisi's production opens like a bolt of lightning, a thrumming ritual rocking the entire room as music director Andrew Cooke pulls off the neat trick of letting his tempi breathe and yet maintaining a driving pulse.

Jared Oxborough lacks some vocal power as Judas but he carries a strong point of view in phrasing and personality -- scolding at first but then haunted by remorse for his fateful decisions. Michelle Carter caresses the solos of Mary Magdalene ("Everything's Alright," "I Don't Know How to Love Him") with lyrical sweetness and baby-doll tenderness.

Ben Bakken's Jesus arrives on the scene with brilliant vocal sound, quarreling with Judas and resisting the clamor of the crowds.

Jay Albright's turn as Herod appears imported from a touring production of "Cabaret," but musically and dramaturgically, "Herod's Song" always has been a departure.

Theatrically, Brindisi's staging is fine. Tam Kangas Erickson's choreography feels fresh and youthful; Sue Berger's lights are superb -- scorching reds at one point etch Judas' face in agony, and later icy blues denote a cold world. Nayna Ramey's crumbling set evokes ancient times and Rich Hamson's costuming has a Star Wars/Mad Max futurism. This design scheme works well, but doesn't make a definitive statement.

It seems apparent that Brindisi wanted this "Superstar" to convert us with the epic power of Jesus' story. Here, the piece feels a bit hamstrung by Tim Rice's libretto, which sacrifices charisma for angst. Bakken falls into that trap, overplaying the anguish to a point where we're focused on his acting rather than the moment. Writhing in pain is a defensible portrayal, but might shocked exhaustion and determined agony dig deeper into a man whose nobility has been shattered by authority?

Credit Brindisi for resisting the au courant vogue of rendering "Superstar" as a disjointed spectacle of set pieces. His artistic vision is dedicated to the music and to telling the story. Even if the power has leached from that narrative, as a rock opera this show is very much alive.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

  • JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR

    Who: By Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Directed by Michael Brindisi.

    When: 6 p.m. dinner, 8 p.m. curtain Tue.-Sat.; 4:30 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Sun.; 11 a.m. & 1 p.m. Wed., Sat. Ends July 30.

    Where: Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, 501 W. 78th St., Chanhassen.

    Tickets: $47 (show only) to $77. 952-934-1525 or www.chanhassentheatres.com

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