Harlequin gives the 1970s 'Jesus Christ Superstar' a millennial update

Contributing writerJune 20, 2013 

  • ‘JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’

    What: Harlequin Productions presents a thoroughly modern take on Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera about Jesus and the apostles.

    When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, plus June 26-29 and July 5-6, 11-13 and 18-20; 2 p.m. Sunday, plus June 30 and July 7, 14 and 21

    Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia

    Tickets: $38 for adults, $35 for seniors and military, $25 for students. Discounted rush tickets are available a half-hour prior to curtain. For the June 26 performance, pay what you can.

    More information: 360-786-0151 or harlequinproductions.org

There are basically two directions a director can take “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

She can be faithful to the period when Christ lived, at least as the modern world imagines it.

Or she can be faithful to the Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera’s origins as a rock opera.

Harlequin Productions’ Linda Whitney went the second route, adding ripped-from-the-viral-video newsiness to the 40-something show.

“This is not what people might be expecting,” Whitney said. “This particular treatment is very modern. It’s based on the Occupy movement, the idea being that this group of protesters has coalesced around Jesus.

“There really are a lot of parallels with the time,” she said. “The Jews had been for a couple of centuries trying to get the Romans out of Israel.”

The political content is very much there in the show, she said. Simon sings about Jesus’s following, encouraging him to harness it to drive the Romans from Jerusalem.

Whitney added protest signs bearing such statements as “People Over Profit,” video screens and modern choreography by Jessica Low, who also plays Mary.

Playing Jesus is Capital Playhouse regular (and resident set designer) Bruce Haasl, who played Judas in a 2009 production. Harlequin regular Christian Doyle plays Judas.

Whitney, who runs Harlequin with her husband, Scot, is known for her love of history — especially history that’s relevant to the moment. Tying Biblical times into modern ones is exactly what you’d expect of her. So it’s a surprise to find out she first planned to take the classical approach, imagining period dress, puppetry, masks and aerial work.

The turnaround was inspired by the unavailability of the costume designer she wanted and by last year’s “Superstar” tour through the arenas of the United Kingdom. The show starred former Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm — aka Sporty Spice — as Mary Magdalene and used big screens to show close-ups to audiences of thousands.

While the Harlequin show has the feel of a rock concert, it doesn’t have the volume — good news for noise-sensitive patrons sitting in the front rows.

All of the music is electronic, with the volume determined by sound engineer Karl Welty.

In previous musicals, the music sometimes was very loud near the stage in an attempt to fill the space with sound. The actors had to deal with extremely high volumes, and it was sometimes difficult to hear them over the high-energy music.

That’s all changed, said Harlequin managing artistic director Scot Whitney.

“All of the band members have in-ear monitors, so they can hear each other perfectly, and it sounds to them like they are playing full blast,” he said. “I happened in during a rehearsal, and the sound guys were like, ‘Scot, Scot, check it out.’ They took the volume down so it was just barely a whisper, and the band was up there playing away and they didn’t even know.”

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