Everything's alright with this rockin' 'Superstar'

April 9, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic


When "Jesus Christ Super-star" premiered in 1970, it was intended to be an epic rock opera like the Who's "Tommy," not a big, glitzy Broad-way production.

Deep Purple's Ian Gillan sang the part of Christ on the original Decca album, and co-author Andrew Lloyd Webber twirled the knobs of a Moog synthesizer like some hip young phantom of the opera. Critics such as Robert Christgau of the Village Voice attacked its "sham intensity," and Rolling Stone predicted that it was designed to be presented live in Las Vegas by Ed Sullivan.

Sure, the idea of a bunch of Manson Family rejects belting out a musical passion play is pretentious and somewhat ridiculous. The score is grandiose and brash, and the libretto is filled with dated hippie lingo and howling one-liners. ("One thing I'll say for him, Jesus is cool!")

But for a generation of hipster slackers raised on "folk-rock masses" and the Norman Jewison film, this silliness adds up to a camp experience equaled only by "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." On Monday at the Park West, an enthusiastic assembly of local underground musicians not only paid homage to the cheesy epic, but reconnected with its progressive-rock roots, eschewing the theatrical trappings to focus on the music.

Bassist Eddie Carlson (a veteran of jangly popsters Frisbie and hippie-funksters Poi Dog Pondering) conceived of the production last Easter, and he first brought it to life onstage at Nevin's Live in Evanston. It was so successful that local promoters Jam Productions brought it to the Park West for this year's encore.

The performance lost a bit in the translation--part of its charm was the intimate rock-club setting, and the Park West is a bit too much like the big theaters that tend to ruin "Jesus Christ Superstar" by emphasizing the theater over the rock--but at heart the show remained true to Carlson's stripped-down vision.

The small but kicking band remained front and center (in addition to Carlson, it featured Jackson Wilson on guitar, Marshall Dawson on drums and the great Liz Conant of the Aluminum Group on keyboards). The singers performed in regular rock attire rather than costumes (Christ wore leather pants), generally avoiding undue hamming.

One charm of Lloyd Webber's work is that Judas is an infinitely more intriguing character than Jesus, superstar or no, and Frisbie's Steve Frisbie rose to the occasion by belting out his parts with unparalleled cheese-rock intensity.

Christ was no slouch (He was played by Sean Allan Krill, one of a handful of ringers who came from the theater rather than the rock world), but the piece is designed to give the best tunes to the villains, or at least the sinners.

Amy Warren of Tallulah had a ball as the slutty Mary Magdalene crooning the lovely ballads "Everything's Alright" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him"; Brad Hoffman rattled the seats with his basso profundo as Caiphas, and Matt Spiegel of Brother Brother and Tributo-saurus stopped the show with his ragtime Herod.

(Disclosure: Spiegel is the producer of my radio show, "Sound Opinions," but this praise reflects the audience consensus, and I for one never knew that he could tap dance.)

" 'Jesus Christ Superstar' is an exercise in theatrical chutzpah with a forgettable score and laughable lyrics," my colleague, Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss asserted in a 1989 review. I respectfully disagree: The tunes are timeless and absolutely irresistible, and the dumbest lines are invariably the best--or at least they were in Monday's production.

One thing I'll say for this "Jesus Christ Superstar," it was cool.