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Jesus Christ!

JCSI was dragged to some community theater recently, and there’s only one way I can process that kind of trauma: I have to write about it. I’m compelled to impart my harrowing experience to you, so you can share the burden of my pain.  So here you go—my review of Burien Little Theater’s Jesus Christ Superstar.

At least I didn’t have to suffer by myself; a group of us went. A friend of ours was in it and we wanted to show our support. I knew something was up when I saw the flyer: a hand with pink Lee press-on nails and a railroad spike through it. Little-known fact: Jesus completed the transcontinental railroad before heading out to Calvary. This was to be a painful experience for everyone involved.

Burien Little Theater is in the gymnasium of an old high school turned community center.  Not a bad setting, really, but it does lend a talent-show feel to the whole affair. Burien is also notorious for having poor sound design. On the plus side, Burien has booze in abundance.  For five bucks I got a drink that had three shots in it., and being ripping drunk is always a tremendous advantage when viewing community theater.  (I pounded a beer during intermission, just to be safe.)

Where do I start? I feel like I’m giving a statement to the police after witnessing a horrible accident. I’ll start at the beginning: The program was a novel.  Tolstoy himself would have said it was ‘a bit lengthy.’ What could possibly have been in there? TL;DR

The chosen aesthetic of Burien’s JCS was ‘Post-Apocalyptic,’ which ignores the fact that Jesus’s second coming would have resulted in the apocalypse, and necessarily occur prior to the events in this version.  I suppose they could really have sold it with a tongue-in-cheek , “here we go again” take on the deal, but alas, everyone involved in the production seemed entirely ignorant of this irony. What resulted was an ersatz Beyond Thunderdome look–with Jews and Romans. (And an actual burned-out car off to one side of the stage. For no reason. I couldn’t imagine the amount of work that went into getting that car dressed and into the auditorium. Maybe Jesus was meant to ride the car into Jerusalem while Israelites cast palm fronds under the bald tires? Nah–the only apparent purpose it served was for Judas to hide behind it in one scene.)

Did you know that Jews and Roman loved to dance fight, just like the Sharks and the Jets? Only the Jews and Romans sucked at it. I could only assume there was no Jerome Robbins in the first century AD. Wait, this was post-apocalyptic. At this point, I was completely confused.

And I stayed confused, through the whole damn show.

If there’s one thing I know about, it’s the bible. As a minister, I used to teach this shit, but still I could not make heads or tails of what was going on in the story. The intent of the actors did not match up in any way, shape, or form with the biblical narrative, or with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s revision.  They went in a new direction entirely—a bad one.

Prior to curtain, an announcement was made that the theater had purchased four new wireless lavalier mics. That was good news, since as I mentioned before, Burien has notoriously bad sound. The problem was, they gave those mics to people who couldn’t sing.  At all. There were singing problems throughout the show. And that was a shame, since JSC had some amazing opportunities for vocalists, which I realized only after going back and listening to concept album.

Talk about an odd experience: having seen the show, I had still not seen the show, as it were. A few days later I listened to the concept album for the first time, and I had no way to reconcile it with what I had witnessed in Burien. I didn’t expect this community theater to be at the level of an original recording. Still, limited resources and talent pools are not always an impediment to providing an entertaining show for an audience. But in the case of Burien’s JCS, bad sound, bad singers, and an inexcusably tepid band all combined to make this a musical betrayal worthy of Judas himself.

Burien’s Judas, played by Michelle Flowers, should have taken the thirty pieces of silver and purchased singing lessons. Flowers was all rasp, and no notes. The mic was hot as hell, and when she really laid into it (which was every other line), it was downright painful. In addition, petulance seemed to be her entire acting style. Even at the last song, when Judas must wrestle with his complex feelings about Jesus from the afterlife, all Flowers managed to pull off was a “Ha ha! Suck it, Jesus!” sort of sentiment. (Incidentally, Judas was inexplicably flanked by several zombie death dancers during this song, only one of whom, the dance captain, could dance.) This was such an important role, I couldn’t understand why a better singer was not assigned to it. And then I had a depressing thought: perhaps there were no better singers in this production. I needed another drink.

Sure enough, the singer problem continued. The chorus had a problem with notes. Like singing more than one of them. One note? Sure, we’ll… try! Two notes? Now hold on there, we’re just simple Gallilean fishermen here. Don’t get so high falutin’ with your harmonies, and what not. Little-known fact: the Jordan river is for the most part a sluggish and muddy discharge. Kind of like what came out of this chorus. See how I tied in biblical simile?

But the show wasn’t all chaff.  Jesus, played by Sophia Fedrighi, had an adequate voice. The indifferent sound design and inattentive engineering left her inaudible at some points and blaring at others (which was a constant problem with all the performers), but she was pleasant enough. Fedrighi didn’t have the ovaries of Ian Gillan, but her take on Jesus was a reasonable choice, with one glaring exception: when Jesus was surrounded by the sick and downtrodden begging him to be healed, Fedrighi’s Jesus expressed horror and fear. That was a new one for the books. But in all fairness, these sick and downtrodden were done up in straight jackets and looked like something out of Silent Hill. A friend leaned over and said they looked more like they were straight out of Benny Hill. Jesus, she can be such a judgmental cunt.

Ashley Coates, who played Mary (and Herod) had a charming voice and had little trouble dealing with the sketchy sound. She’s one of the few singers who came across consistently. If I had a criticism of her Mary, it was that she was perhaps a bit too articulate, like Mary Poppins singing Judas Priest. On the other hand, Coates’s Herod was a pig fuck, but I don’t think it was her fault. When the time came for King Herod’s Song, Coates came barreling out of the wings looking every bit like Edina Monsoon on a Vueve Cliquot jag. And here’s where the band really screwed the sacrificial lamb.

Oh Christ, the band.

Imagine the Lawrence Welk band, only less energetic.  They skipped the opening tag to King Herod’s Song, and then uncharacteristically flew headlong into a frantic pace that was a good ten or twenty ticks faster than the original. King Herod’s song was written as a coy, jaunty Charleston–likely a genre of music that was popular during the lifetimes of some of the band members.  Of all the songs, you’d have thought they could have gotten that one song right. Personally I liked Coates’s unconventional Herod, even though the others in my party did not. They can suck it. I was glad for the distraction of the non-sequitor, even if this choice was way out of place. Coates could have made her Herod work (for me) but for how goddamn fast the band was going! She could barely get the words out.

The actor who came out smelling like a rose or, shall I say, smelling the least like the festering heap of Gehenna that was Burien’s JCS was Heather Ward, as Pontius Pilate. (Just to make this clear, Ward is not the friend I came to see perform, and she and I have never met. My friend was in the chorus, and did a fine job when I could pick her voice out of the tin-eared rabble.) Ward was a solid player, and had a lovely contralto voice.  Even when the band conspired to trip her up or simply faded into wishy-washiness, Ward soldiered on and made choices that made sense in the context she was given. Pilate is a complicated character, not only in the musical, but also in the bible. Ward let me see some of that complexity and emotional struggle. There was a lot at stake here for Pilate, and I could feel it. Which was a nice change, because what I mostly felt during the show was a vague dyspepsia from the booze. Other than Ward, no actor displayed any discernible stakes for themselves.

Did I mention that this was an all-female cast? I would have been cool with that as a choice, but I think it was a fallback position—community theater is notorious for not having enough male players. Still, that doesn’t excuse casting women who couldn’t sing. There’re plenty of women in this city that can do the job, and you need women who can really sing if you’re going to do a musical in “male” keys  (the music was played in the original key). As it was, there was a lot of wandering around the vocal line going on, mostly accidental.

There were so many surreal, ludicrous moments during the evening that they started to blur together. I think I blocked many of them as a defense mechanism. But I was very proud of myself: I was completely tanked, and yet I managed to keep my tongue in my head.  Because the audience was made up entirely of the family and friends of the cast (with maybe the occasional patron), the last thing I needed was a derisive outburst when seeing yet another avoidable gaff. As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. There was more than one occasion where a particularly hacky moment was met with an incredulous chortle from the seats behind me. Friends can be such dicks sometimes.

There is no culture of criticism in the Seattle arts community.  Any response to someone’s art other than complete rapture is considered a personal affront, and tantamount to not recycling, or voting Republican. This is why I don’t do the obligatory meet and greet when I go to community theater. I usually go straight to the car after curtain to avoid awkward conversations. In this case, I stood by myself in a corner and pretended to have laryngitis until my party was ready to leave. Very few people are like my friend, who actually wanted honest input. I told her the truth, the show was shit, but I thought she did fine and sang well, when I could make her out in the braying throng.

On the way home, someone in my party was asking some questions about the story, since she was not familiar with the bible, or Andrew Lloyd Webber. When she was satisfied that she understood the two narratives well enough she paused and said, “But that show still doesn’t explain why Jesus has pink photoshopped fingernails.”

No, it doesn’t. But we are not meant to understand the mysteries of god, much less the mysteries of community theater.

 

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