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Messiah Modernized 

by Michael Bowen


The antipasto was spread across the This is not the hippies' Superstar. The current national tour of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1971 musical doesn't feature a lot of Jesus Freaks wearing sandals, indistinguishable from one another in beards and long hair. As this production's Mary Magdalene, Natalie Toro puts it, "It's not all olive trees and lots and lots of desert."


Instead, says Toro, while Webber's music hasn't been changed, "the look is different -- very urban. The apostles are right out of a Gap commercial, the priests are dressed like those guys in The Matrix, and the cops are out of Star Wars."


In addition, there's greater emphasis in this tour on the humanity of Christ (played by Eric Kunze) and on his relationship with Mary Magdalene.


Toro, who has Broadway and touring experience playing such ardent roles as Eponine in Les Miserables, Evita and Grizabella in Cats, doesn't have any problem being passionate onstage: "Mary had a lot of information that the apostles weren't aware of," she says. "Peter was jealous of her, for example. She's a woman, and she's got all this passion and this sexuality. What Eric and I do, which has never been done before, is to put a lot of energy into it: They're very much in love."


Of course, any production of Jesus Christ Superstar that portrays the Messiah as capable of romantic passion is going to arouse controversy. "In the Bible Belt," Toro recalls, "they were really picketing out in front, holding signs saying, 'This is the Antichrist's play' and don't go see it, and I wondered, 'What are they talking about?' Well, some of our cast and crew are brave, so they went out to talk to these people, and, without exception, they hadn't seen the show."


Its popularity, however, isn't in question: "This show, it's more like it was in the '70s -- people are flocking to go see it." The tour, originally scheduled to end last June after an eight-month run, has now been extended through the fall.


Must be because of the dress. "For 'Everything's All Right,'" says Toro, "I wear a red-hot dress with a slit up the side, and from my very first entrance, I come on very strong. I mean, I come on with the goods." Even as Judas is expressing doubts about the identity of Christ, Mary is anointing his feet with oil. "I am the strength, the vortex between these two guys," says Toro. "I'm not only soothing Jesus, but I'm also telling Judas, 'You better stop.' I think because of my choices, people will remember her."


She continues, impatiently: "I can't just wait around to sing 'I Don't Know How To Love Him,' you know. Jesus and Mary may have had another connection. With all the research that's coming out -- the Gnostic gospels, The Da Vinci Code, research about women in the early Church -- I really feel like Mary [Magdalene] is the first feminist in the Bible.


"She's got this reputation that's so bad. But in the Bible, nowhere does it say that she was a prostitute. If she'd been a man, she would have been considered an apostle."


And like the apostles, Mary Magdalene had to grow into a knowledge of Christ's divinity. Like them, she regarded him first as a man, and only later as a divine messenger.


Toro claims that her big number, "I Don't Know," is a question aimed at all of us: "She's asking, 'Would you know how to love him?' She already knows how to love men physically. The question she's really asking is, 'How do you go about loving God?' And remember, at the point when she's singing that song to him, he's going crazy. She knows what's going on -- at least, that's my subtext, that I know what's going to happen, at least roughly, because he talked to her and confided in her. He's flipping out, throwing temper tantrums, the lepers are at him."


In this interpretation, Christ is having a nightmare that Mary, concentrating on comforting him, is unaware of: "We're playing it that I don't see the lepers, that it's dream-like. I'm calming him after a nightmare. After he goes to sleep in my lap, then I start wondering, 'How do I love him?'


"I don't put any pop licks here or there just for no reason. I start it very softly. I don't pump it up a lot like I've heard some other Mary Magdalenes do. I think you cheapen the songs that way. So I'm not going to do a whole Mariah Carey thing there. I mean, it's a question -- a question doesn't build higher and higher."





But Superstar does have its emotional crescendos. Will it have the same impact as Mel Gibson's upcoming movie, The Passion of the Christ? Toro says that the cast is excited to see the film, "though of course it's different -- that's the last week of Christ's life, and our show is the last 12 hours."


Superstar isn't nearly as graphic as Gibson's film will be -- though Toro describes the staged crucifixion as "pretty bloody" -- but the musical still clearly packs an emotional wallop. When Pontius Pilate has Christ whipped in "39 Lashes," says Toro, "We've had audiences hysterical, crying. We had one woman running up to the orchestra pit, and she's screaming and wailing, telling them they had to stop, stop hurting him. And it was such a shock that our Pilate almost lost count of all those lashes."


Toro wants playgoers to know, however, that this version of Jesus Christ Superstar offers more than just shock value. "No matter what religion or faith you are, it's going to have a big effect on you," she says. "It's going to change you. It's a new version, but with the same music. And I want people to come to this show with an open mind.


"It's so hard now, with the war and all the terrorism, but if you're willing to sit still for two hours and listen, you will renew your faith in mankind."





Publication date: 02/12/04

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