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Jesus Christ Superstar/Jesucristo Superestrella

Zachary Scott Theatre's Jesus Christ Superstar/Jesuchristo Superestrella transcends the usual ascension into the heavens of rock & roll to become an anthem of Mexican tradition

Reviewed by Patti Hadad, Fri., June 1, 2007

Arts Review

Jesus Christ Superstar/Jesucristo Superestrella

Zachary Scott Theatre Center Kleberg Stage, through July 15

It took a lot of cojones for the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, one of Austin's non-Latino theatre companies, to step up and deliver a Mexican-American production of Jesus Christ Superstar that portrays Jesucristo as religiously and racially persecuted. The big-budget theatre not only had to adjust immaculately white characters into a Technicolor cast but also had to convert a safely secular show into a Catholic-based production.

Director Dave Steakley couldn't have a Mexican production without including la Virgen de Guadalupe; she is the cornerstone of Mexican Catholic imagery. So, surrounded by candles, the Virgin's statue is hauled onstage on a red Radio Flyer by a young girl in a red dress. A sea of red, the color of passion (thanks to Mel Gibson, we can appreciate the symbolism), washes over everything: the stage, the floors, and the frames of the 44 shadow boxes contributed to designer Michael Raiford's set. The shadow boxes include different mosaics of the sacred heart, of Jesus, of Mary, or all three, creating the effect that the stage is one king-sized shadow box, a postcard for Mexican iconography.

The other cross that Steakley has to bear here is Jesus' caricature as "man," with the rock opera treating his weakness as if it were, well, gospel. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's original Jesus was more flawed superhero than divine miracle worker. But we see the human nature of his conflicting ego, and uncertainty is still what makes the production so darn swallowable. Here, in the last seven days of Jesus' life, we see him smile and wave at people, yell at his disciples at the Last Supper, and cry in the garden before he is cuffed by the border patrol.

Jesus Christ Superstar always offers an ascension into the heavens of rock & roll, but Zach's Jesuchristo Superestrella transcends that to become an anthem of Mexican tradition. Absolutely anything authentically Mexican you can think of is celebrated in this production. Susan Branch's costumes cover everything from the short appearance of an Aztec warrior to a zoot suit to Morrissey-loving goths. King Herod's scene, which is already satirical, is a touch more picante when he comes out sparkling as a luchador with a cape and lucha mask. Three women with white lace dresses holding their skirts up to their ears twirl around Jesus during his crucifixion while the cast, bedecked in black with skull masks, process as if on Día de los Muertos, celebrating exactly what Jesus wants: remembrance of all souls.

What also makes this production enjoyable is the genre-stratified scoring. Hippies loved the original's high-spirited gospel rock, which is still present here in "Hosanna" – a number also distinguished by some of Robin Lewis' happy Brady Bunch choreography. Allen Robertson's modern scoring is less ominous than the original and includes in places a hint of Mexican flavor, though without overdoing the mariachi trumpets. I could have stood more; it would have been so nice to hear some soaring falsettos typical of Mexican balladeers followed by an ear-splitting grito.

Álvaro Cerviño's translation involves only a slight change of languages and rhyming words. For bilinguals, Spanglish lyrics make the monolingual actors stand out slightly, making the lyrics a little like Pentecostal babble, even for a fluent Spanish speaker.

Still, each performer lends a hand with his or her unique talent. The black gospel vocals of Zach regular Janis Stinson redefine soul music praising Jesus. Schrödinger's Cat singer John Pointer was born to play Judas; with the smile of a pícaro, he booms his a cappella bass vocals. Dressed like Frida Kahlo, Theresa Medina's Mary Magdalene woos Jesus with operatic undertones, giving the impression that Steakley added some Dan Brown to the script. But then you can't avoid making Jesus Christ Superstar a bit sexy when you have Latino actors and passionate movements. Though dressed here as a migrant worker in head-to-toe denim, Jesuscristo, as played by actor Joseph Melendez, has a forceful voice touched with just the right amount of humility. And he's not bad to look at, either.

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