Behind the curtain

Two of June’s must-see theater productions


Right off the bat, let’s get this out of the way: I’m highlighting both “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost” because they’re extraordinary pieces of theater from entirely different genres and eras. Choosing between them was not an option, so you get the best of both.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” will run at the Wharton Center June 13-18. The show has been fascinating and moving audiences since it premiered on Broadway in 1971, but its initial impression came through the old vinyl and 8-track tape market. Even with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, this beloved rock opera wasn’t an instant hit with producers. That’s why the duo went with a recording instead of a stage production — and it worked. 

The question is: Why is this show still relevant 52 years later? 

The answer depends on whom you ask and what their experience with the music and the show is. Regardless, it’s fair to argue that a great deal of the show’s popularity has to do with the humanization of Christ and his followers. The show, at its core, is about love and relationships. You see Judas not as an evil money-grubber but instead as a wise man becoming disillusioned by his close friend’s growing popularity. His struggle is one each of us can connect with because we’ve all been happy that a friend is succeeding yet upset with the loss of the close relationship with that friend the newfound success brings. 

In the musical, Judas is a fatally flawed and importantly relatable character. He’s the kind of complicated villain that makes theater touch our souls in new ways. 

Christ may be the titular character, but he’s also the one a tsunami of emotions crashes down upon. His story we already know. It’s a 2000-year-old story that’s fed wars and witch hunts, both literal and figurative. 

But do we really know? “Jesus Christ Superstar” portrays a very different Christ than the loving, nonchalant figure of the Bible. Here, the story focuses on the confusion, fear and frustration of being both man and God. Where do the lines between the two start or stop? “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” is one of the most powerful spiritual songs in the Broadway lexicon. Here you see Christ fully realized as a human of deep faith, struggling with the events he knows are rushing at him like a freight train in the darkness. That struggle results in a powerful transformation of acceptance. 

It’s in this story we see Christ’s emotional — and, depending on the director, perhaps subtly sexual — relationship with Mary Magdalene. She’s not a strumpet as tradition would have us believe. She had an intimate relationship with Christ, sharing in his secrets and providing him comfort. For contemporary Christians, her portrayal is often shocking.

Don’t expect this show to be an exact recreation of the 1975 movie. The sensibilities and styles of the times have changed. The updated version allows modern audiences to be introduced to this fantastic piece of theater without suffering from generational shock. 

Now, let’s take a peek behind another curtain. Lansing Community College will present William Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” June 21-25. The incomparable Mary Job will direct this production, so expect crisp characters, well-delivered and conceptualized lines and big fun. 

Shakespeare knew that love is a fickle thing and poked fun at it as often as he could. “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is no different than his other romantic comedies. In this instance, four men in the court of Navarre, including the king, swear an oath to forgo the company of women — and, more important, love. 

But Shakespeare wasn’t having any of that boring stuff. No sooner are the oaths sworn than the Princess of France and her entourage show up. Romantic gestures are made in secret, oaths are broken and love blossoms. The unfolding humor of the men finding out that the others have lied to each other about keeping their oaths is a classic comedy convention of overheard revelations. 

It’s nice to see that Shakespearean productions are back at LCC’s Outdoor Amphitheater. It’ll be fantastic to see what the talented Job weaves for the audience with this piece of the Bard’s canon of work. And it’s free to boot, so there’s no reason not to go!


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