Theater » Theater Feature

I Don’t Know How to Love It

Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t fully divine. Plus, Black Pearl Sings at Hattiloo.

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My 11-year-old daughter and I sang the title song from Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS) in the car all the way home from Theatre Memphis. Usually this would be a good sign for the show, but in this case we were both in full-on parody mode: "Jesus Christ, cargo shorts, what do you use all those pockets for?"

We imagined what Jesus might keep in his cargo shorts. Loaves? Fish? Water? Wine? Blood packs for all the simulated torture to come?

Theatre Memphis' typically lavish musical production is a mixed bag, and ultimately it's the show's lavishness that does the mixing. On the plus side, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice passion play is louder than bombs. From the pit, Davy Ray Bennett lays down some nasty-good guitar and choreographer Pam Hurley's highly individualized Hair-meets-A Charlie Brown Christmas approach to the dance numbers is a refreshing counterpoint to the flashy precision-tap sequences that are practically a prerequisite for admission to the Lohrey stage. Although the vocals are inconsistently mixed, the resulting arena concert feel is right on target. In terms of staging, however, this JCS is more old-school opera than any school of rock, with lots of people standing in place singing emphatically at one another. And did I mention that the messiah wore CARGO SHORTS? Because that happened.

Okay, okay. Anachronisms are customary in JCS, and I should probably lay off the damn pants. And I probably would if they didn't make such a useful metaphor for a sincerely imagined show that grasps for currency while trying not to offend. Thing is, Superstar was conceived at the tail end of the 1960s and born on Broadway in 1971. It told the Lord's story using the Devil's music and is supposed to be at least a little bit transgressive. And from my perspective — and a purely dramatic standpoint — it's hard to experience either the danger or the divinity of Gap Jesus.

Jesus was a rebel, wasn't he? And Cargo shorts are half-off at the Money Changer near you.

Director Kell Christie is a smart interpreter of dramatic material with a playful spirit and an inclination to paint on a big canvases. The environment for her production of Amadeus at Theatre Memphis was so grand, it dwarfed a group of players who know how to go large. JCS's split-level space is built to a more human scale and perfect for people-stacking, but its implied volume and literalness can similarly overwhelm the action. All the singing, dancing, betraying, whipping, and crucifying takes place in the wreckage of a ruined cathedral that immediately calls to mind the epic destruction of the Blitzkrieg and the under-construction England into which both the musical's authors were born. The absence of a resurrection scene — a sticking point among Christians who like to feel persecuted — is atoned for by the opportunity to "rebuild the temple," and thereby fulfill the previously unfulfilled prophecies with a visually stunning metaphor.

Vocal showboating was a little much at times, but JCS still boasts some strong performances, especially by Stephen Garrett as Jesus and Lee Hudson Gilliland as the conflicted Judas. It's hard to know, given how much this loosely told story relies on theatrical convention, how things might have gone if the emphasis was on actors instead of scenic design and on action instead of activity.

Jesus Christ Superstar is at Theatre Memphis through March 30th.

When Black Pearl Sings closes in April, the Hattiloo Theatre will go dark for a time. When it reopens, it will be in its new custom-built playhouse in the Overton Square theater district.

Like Jesus Christ Superstar, Black Pearl is a mixed bag. The script is clunky, rambling, and repetitive. If you take a drink every time the play's lone white character says "how dare you," or "don't you dare" you can probably catch a buzz by intermission. Staged on a set that most Memphis high schools would find unacceptable and with a lighting design best described as "on or off," it's not much to look at either. Thankfully the somewhat true story — a gender-flipped retelling of how pioneering ethnomusicologist John Lomax discovered Leadbelly in a Texas prison — boasts some interesting ideas, and a pair of top notch actors who interpret the script's musical passages beautifully.

Claire Hayner plays Susannah, who was named for the song "Oh Susannah" and who has devoted her life to collecting old melodies and folk traditions. She's the perfect foil for Patricia Smith's Pearl, so named because of her ability to irritate and to endure.

Black Pearl Sings is at Hattiloo Theatre through April 6th.

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