(Jan. 19) If you live near any of the 29 cities still slated to host the 50th anniversary tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, then buy your tickets now. It is a spectacular show, and it now has earned its place as a cultural touchstone on many levels.

I’m no knowledgeable theater critic, but this traveling version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice original, which I attended in New Orleans last weekend, is hugely entertaining. The set, the choreography, the musicianship, the singing, the acting: All are absolutely first-rate, as close to being flawless as mortals can muster. And while one hesitates to distinguish between different microlevels of excellence, I think special nods are due to Elvie Ellis as Judas and Isaac Ryckeghem as Caiaphas, both of whom inhabit their characters to the Nth degree.

On a broader level, though, what’s remarkable is how well Superstar has held up in the relevance of its implicit cultural commentary — most of which, as in the movie Blazing Saddles (definitely minus that movie’s slapstick), plays into hidden biases not to ratify them but to demonstrate how absurd or objectionable they are.

From the beginning, Superstar was controversial on numerous fronts. Devout Christians disliked it because it made Jesus too human (not enough God-like) and because it includes no resurrection. Some Jews complained that it exacerbated the notion of collective Jewish guilt for Jesus’s death. Some black people took offense that Judas (and he alone, in the original, although far from it in the 50th anniversary show) was always played by a black actor, as if to cement the association of “black” with “bad.” And as far I can tell, every version for 50 years has, for no good historical reason, portrayed Herod not just as homosexual but as flamboyantly so queer (and, in this performance, histrionically transvestite).

The better take is that Rice and Lloyd Webber are deliberately but subtly playing with our minds, with the real message being that “identity” (as today’s woke hordes call it) doesn’t matter, but that character and humanity and mixed human motives take precedence…. [The full column is at this link.]


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