A Treat In Rock: “Jesus Christ Superstar” by the Workshop Players

I had the opportunity of being in the balcony for Jerome De Silva’s re-creation of the Rice-Lloyd Webber rock musical “Jesus Christ Superstar”, on the8th October, Lionel Wendt, which was a satisfactory performance from the standpoint of Sri Lankan English theater. The Wendt is a small theater, and with the exception of the cast and crowd appearing to be somewhat cramped for space — as Jerome De Silva casts are known to be gregarious — and the acoustics not being too friendly for “crowd scenes”, the performance as a whole left a deep imprint.

From the cinematic rendition of "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1973)

From the cinematic rendition of “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973)

Daily FT images of the play rehearsals carried recently

Having earlier watched the popular film version of the same “rock opera”, I felt that the film had had a close interaction with the producer’s blueprint in conceptualizing some of the scenes. But, this aside, much meditated planning has gone into “thinking out” the performance and its effectiveness could be seen in the even synchronizations, the (overall) satisfactory projections and the smooth continuity of the play. The continuity factor — the way in which a “scene” merges into another, the same way a “scene” in a film gives way to its succeeding scene — is a subtle “key” through which you can analyze the success of a musical. The line up should not merely be song-performances, but a negotiative amalgam which facilitates the continuation of the reader’s line of thought, which hangs momentarily suspended at the end of each “scene”. The Workshop Players and Jerome De Silva had made quick work of this requirement.

On October 9th, the most powerful performance was that of Judas, who, by his act, at times, cast a shadow on some of the other performers. Jesus, as felt by some fellow audience members, was a wee bit anemic, but my reading of “Jesus Christ Superstar” has always necessitated a lethargy and passivity on the part of Jesus. The Rice-Lloyd Webber venture, in the spirit of rock, was a de-mystification of the Jesus Christ Myth, creatively intervening and re-interpreting for us what could be a palpable alternative to the Grand Narrative of the orthodox church.

The memorable Judas in Carl Anderson (1973)

The memorable Judas in Carl Anderson (1973)

The play/musical lays bare the personal and community tensions in their multifold forms, when your land is occupied by tyranny (of Rome) and where mobilization and redemption is urgent. Jesus — the Superstar — emerges as a charismatic icon and a “mobilization point” around whom you could rally the multitudes, as he has the energy in winning the common hearts and in being able to drive them to a monolothic goal. It is this quality in him which makes him the “Son of God”, thus making him an enemy of the traditional authority, who — for their advantage — lean on Rome, to get Jesus (a Double Enemy) liquidated. The exportable nature of the complex but common veins of power at play can well be appreciated if one is to juxtapose the above interpretation with the political patterns of all time and of all places — not the least, of Sri Lanka.

A Sunday Times image of the Worshop Players during rehearsals for JCSS

A Sunday Times image of the Worshop Players during rehearsals for JCSS

The “Leper Colony Scene” has always been one of my favourite passages, as I have seen several powerful renditions of it; and the Workshop Players were satisfactory in this regard, too. The contrast between Judas and Mary Magdalene in voice, tone and reference to Jesus — where, among them, they play out the subtle variations of love, objectification and affection — was well established and Mary Magdelene of October 9th was solid and consistent through the different and diverse moods/situations of the play. The acoustic variations and the investment on lights/effects reflected a very committed ground plan and one is left to wonder what yards could have been gained had the show been in a “better” auditorium with more nuanced technology.

However, I must also admit that this is the first play/musical that I have been to where the audience would clap and applaud almost every “scene”. Either, it reflected my own inadequacy in theater experience or the audience’s general lack of “theater sense”. In any case, the “masses” among the audiences of Sri Lankan English theater in and around Colombos 3,4,5 and 7 are not known to differentiate between a theatrical commitment in the caliber of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Chaminda Puswedilla”. Our cultural education is such that we are by large a people who cannot watch an Opera and appreciate it above the level of watching a sword fight scene of a King Henry play. The applause earned by Dominic Keller, who played a cameo Herod, amply demonstrates my point above, as his popularity earned by playing Puswedilla had the greater bearing on the audience’s catcalls and personalized cheering hoots at Herod’s entrance.

The standing ovation with which the performance ended was a bit contrived, but not altogether an absurdity when considering the pompous instrumental of that national anthem one is made to stand through at the commencement of the show.

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4 thoughts on “A Treat In Rock: “Jesus Christ Superstar” by the Workshop Players

  1. If the writer was really there on October 9th he/she would know that “the pompous instrumental” national anthem did not play that night. There was a glitch in the system, so Jerome started off the singing of the national anthem, and the whole audience joined in and SANG the national anthem before the performance! So I have some doubts about this whole piece.

    • There’s an entire submission on the play and all you have to comment on is the reference to the national anthem?? The submission is made on the 9th alright, but the performance is of the night of the 8th. What — anyway — is the connection between my dissing the playing of a national anthem at a play (thank god it was an instrumental) and the validity of the article?

      And Lalith, since you so proudly say that everyone SANG the national anthem on the 9th, may I ask in what language the singing was done? THAT is why the national anthem, sung in one language — chosen over others — should not be sung at a play!

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