Little City Lights pulls off big `Superstar'
AMBITIOUS PRODUCTION BY S.J. COMPANY SHOWS THAT '70S ROCK MUSICAL STILL CAN BE RELEVANT
By Colin Seymour
The City Lights Theater Company is billing the rock opera ``Jesus
Christ Superstar'' as ``the most ambitious effort that the company has
ever undertaken.'' But some skepticism might surround the production.
For one thing, the image of the show as a cast-of-thousands
extravaganza might seem beyond the means of the tiny San Jose troupe.
Beyond that, would success mean sacrificing the City Light-ness of the
O, ye of little faith: Suspend that disbelief.
With a cast of 28 and a five-man rock combo often surrounding the
audience at the 108-seat theater, City Lights artistic director Lisa
Mallette has filled the relatively small 2,000-square-foot space with a
multitude of sights and sounds in every direction, creating illusions
of grandeur worthy of the show's fabled music team, Andrew Lloyd Webber
(``Phantom of the Opera'') and Tim Rice (``The Lion King''). Yet the
set itself is as humble as a rural church.
The show -- which brought round-the-block lines to South Second
Street for previews last week -- even refutes a third cause for
skepticism: the sense that ``Superstar'' is mired in its early '70s
origins and is not worth producing anymore.
The score alone creates ecstasy, especially if you heard it back in
the day but haven't in a while. There's the title song. And ``What's
the Buzz?'' ``Everything's Alright,'' ``I Don't Know How to Love Him,''
``Hosanna,'' ``Jesus Must Die.'' And all those juicy licks for right-on
guitarist brothers Bill and Tim Rupel.
Talk about a revival! This audacious stretch by City Lights does not
deviate from its mission to aim high and have fun, with the gambling
and gamboling lacking in many of today's movies and television shows
but still present in good theater.
The two sure things going in -- probably the impetus -- were that
Kit Wilder, Mallette's husband and company co-leader, could deliver a
world-class performance in the title role, and that he could do it with
a City Lights sensibility.
His undeniable charisma has a diabolical element that rides that
edge. City Lights is clubby, and there's an air of a sly wink to this
whole thing that is faithful to rock 'n' roll. Yet it's a good-faith
performance. Wilder is an earnest, volatile, human Jesus throughout
those seven final days among mankind. And, zounds, he can hit a high C
Although there are other praiseworthy principals, the voices that
really carry this production are in the chorus. Everyone is miked,
despite the intimate venue. The surround sound and Lloyd Webber's
adventurous harmonies are so sensational they vastly outweighed any
scattered sound-system glitches that still were being ironed out at
Friday's preview. (The choral depth was not a given going in.)
Standing out among the principals is burly, tattooed Adam Campbell
as Judas Iscariot. The vocal role is nearly as juicy as the lead, and
Campbell is big enough for the job. Jay Steele and Michael Johnson are
perfect counterparts as even-more-burly priests. Tim Reynolds as
Pontius Pilate and Tomas Theriot as King Herod are slick and suitably
As a very soothing Mary Magdalene, Jeanne Batacan-Harper has more
than enough heart. Her lack of oomph as a lead rock vocalist creates a
weak impression, however -- at least until her miraculous turnaround, a
tearjerking rendition of ``I Don't Know How to Love Him.'' She redeems
a song that many consider a mawkish cliche epitomizing a mawkish era.
In that era, ``Hair'' was the quintessential rock opera, with
``Jesus Christ Superstar'' seeming a bit of a rip-off, aside from Lloyd
Webber's inventive score. But that ``tribal musical'' truly is a relic now.
In a production that seems more to be set in AD 2006 than in AD 30,
the relevance of this show is palpable for the audience. John might
step on front-row feet accidentally. Jesus' backdraft might muss
patrons' hair. And don't step in his ``blood'' as you're crossing the
stage on your way out. But the spirit takes hold and, for two hours
anyway, it doesn't let go.
`Jesus Christ Superstar' By Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice
The upshotSmall company aims high, connects big-time
WhereCity Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second St., San Jose
When8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 7 p.m. July 23 and 30; 2 p.m. Aug. 6, 13 and 20
Through Aug. 20
Running time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $15-$35; (408) 295-4200, www.cltc.org
Contact Colin Seymour at email@example.com or (408) 920-5857.
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