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New spin on superstar

BY EMMA MCCLATCHEY | APRIL 10, 2014 5:00 AM

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Religious films have struck movie theaters like a plague this spring, turning Biblical stories into spectacles of computer effects and melodramatic morality tales. But before Noah, The Bible, or even Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, there was Jesus Christ Superstar, and it rocked. Quite literally.

Forty-three years later, it still does. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's 1970s rock opera takes one of history's most well-known stories and infuses it with hippies, machine guns, and rock 'n' roll screams. The result is a hit musical, put on by "hip" church groups and professional theater troupes alike. (There is even a revival touring North America now, featuring JC Chasez from 'NSYNC and Michelle Williams of Destiny's Child. My '90s self is swooning.)

The City Circle Acting Company of Coralville has taken on Jesus Christ Superstar, with performances that started on April 4 and continue this weekend at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, 1301 Fifth St. I attended the company's April 3 dress rehearsal and was impressed not only by the strength of the local talent — which includes a 52-person cast of elementary-schoolers to adults — but the clever ways in which director Elizabeth Tracey and her crew brought Jesus' crucifixion story into the modern day.

And I mean all the way into the modern day. The play's ensemble welcomes Jesus onstage as if he were the star of The Hunger Games, with a flash of iPhone cameras, "WE LOVE YOU, JESUS" banners, and girlish squeals. They are also dressed to the style of the day; if the disciples of the 1973 film of Jesus Christ Superstar are hippies, then these are hipsters circa 2014.

The set is minimalistic, as one might expect of a community-theater production, with a chain-link fence, a couple platforms, and two well-utilized projection screens. But the stage came to life during a few particularly strong sequences. One was Simon's zealot scene, portrayed as a kind of Marxist call to action, with choreography involving prop semiautomatic rifles. Another is Jesus' rampaging in the temple, which had been transformed into a trashy nightclub rather than a black market.

The most dynamic scene was Jesus' trial by King Herod, a toupé-wearing TV host with a band of show girls and a Twitter handle. This created a poignant critique of the way modern media publicly lambast celebrities, all wrapped in a fantastic dance number. Herod even drops a reference to Justin Bieber, setting up a tenuous albeit relevant analogy to the way the public can turn against even the most beloved stars on a dime.

Herod is just one of many clever characterizations, which include Jesus as a sort of indie/hipster idol, Judas as a slick-haired modern Hamlet, Pontius Pilate as a jaded ex-Marine and father, and Caiaphas' gang of persecutors as conniving capitalists. The opportunity to adapt Mary Magdelene into a sexually assertive modern woman was perhaps missed, but actress Hannah Loeb's voice was arguably the strongest of the show.

Lead Esack Grueskin — the only cast member with a cooler name than Jesus Christ — gave a moving performance as the martyred Jesus, even in cargo shorts. And Rob Merritt held his own as the show's antihero Judas, offering a kind of '90s rock-band quality in his voice and appearance. 

In short, City Circle's Jesus Christ Superstar is smarter and more daring than one might expect from a local-theater production. If it's not a religious experience, it will at least get your head buzzing with issues of fame, modern media, heroism, and the dangers of the mob mentality — oh, and Christianity, I guess.

So be sure to nab a ticket for a performance this weekend. Trust me — your two hours will be much better spent here than on any of Mel Gibson's films. 


City Circle's Jesus Christ Superstar
When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. April 13
Where: Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, 1301 Fifth St.
Admission: $12 for children, $17 for students and seniors, $22 for adults


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