As I left the sanctuary of the historic First Presbyterian Church on Saturday night for the brisk walk back to my office, I thought how that few blocks of South Temple typified part of the message I drew from "Jesus Christ Superstar."
Two thousand years ago, during the Savior's time, there were discord and differences of opinion not only among his throngs of disciples, but also among his chosen apostles.Today, there are hundreds of churches and congregations under the global umbrella of Christianity.
Next door to the First Presbyterian Church is the campus of a business college allied with the LDS Church. Just minutes down the street is the floodlighted architecture of the massive Cathedral of the Madeleine, now being restored (with funding from more than just the Catholics in our city). Further on, there is a brightly lit billboard touting the First Unitarian Church's celebration of "100 years of liberal religion in Utah."
In between these landmarks are the neon signs and window displays of retail establishments - and, for some, commercialism certainly takes on a religious zeal.
I realize full well that, for many, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's 1971 rock opera setting for the final seven days in the life of Jesus Christ is considered blasphemous. But after seeing it for the first time this weekend, I came away with the feeling that what you get out of "Superstar" depends on what you bring into it.
While some aspects made me uncomfortable, I also feel very strongly that good theater should make you think.
And "Jesus Christ Superstar" does that.
There are many strong, powerful and profound moments in this production - Christ exploding in anger at the vendors in the temple (in contrast to the gentle humility he demonstrates en route into Jerusalem for Passover) . . . Judas' torment and personal anguish . . . the drama of the Last Supper (depicted as a picnic) . . . Christ confronting Peter and Judas, knowing they will soon deny and betray him . . . the decadence of Herod's court . . . the turmoil of Pilate realizing he is caught up in a terrible situation he cannot change.
Most moving of all is Christ's final humiliation and great sacrifice - his crucifixion.
Much of the controversy even before the production opened on Broadway nearly 20 years ago stemmed from what many perceived as Jesus being depicted as "just a man."
But Randy Barton's beautiful portrayal of Christ, for me at least, did not come off with this distorted perspective. Barton displayed a full gamut of the Savior's emotions - elation, loneliness, fear, courage, confusion, love, anger and amnesty.
It is turncoat Judas (well played by Jon Shuman) who promotes the skewed notion that Christ is "just a man." From the very first scene, he is bent on "stripping away the myth from the man." But, in the end, sin upon sin, he merely creates enough rope to hang himself.
Director Linda Bishop has a cast of very talented performers for the production's leading roles - notably Barton in the title role, Teri Cowan as Mary and Shawn Maxfield as Pilate. Their acting and singing abilities more than compensate for the show's weaker points. M Troy Klee as the evil Herod and Trevor A. Williams as chief priest Caiaphus were also standouts.
Unfortunately, there were almost as many inconsistencies as there were pluses, at least on opening night.
The 13-piece orchestra was much too loud most of the time, pushing the sound system to the max and making many of the lyrics unintelligible. (My big mistake was sitting on the right side of the sanctuary - just a couple of rows away from the musicians.) Some of the acting ensemble also appeared a little unsure during the choreographed sequences.
The rock-opera format used by Webber and Rice obviously targets the kind of people who, unless their interest is piqued, might never crack open the Bible. In this context, "Jesus Christ Superstar" works well.
Despite the weaker aspects of the performance (all of which can be fixed during the show's run), if "Superstar" prods audiences into "reading more about it" (to borrow a recommendation from the Library of Congress), then this production is an unqualified success.