By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
The Mexican Spanish-language production of Tim Rice’s award-winning 1970 rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” (called “Jesucristo Súper Estrella,” in Spanish ) – jointly produced by longtime Mexican theatrical regisseur Alejandro Gou Boy and U.S. film and television star Armando Reyes (“Chicago P.D.”) – is a rare thing in the world of modern theatrical revivals: It manages to stick to the original play’s music, lyrics and creative intentions, while infusing them with a more contemporary vigor by recasting the play into a present-day urban setting.
The musical, which opened at Mexico City’s Centro Cultural Teatro 1 on July 12 for a limited 20-show run through Sept. 1 (plus two performances at the Auditorio Telmex in Zapopan, Jalisco, on Aug. 10), deftly transforms the hippie-era, rock’n’roll songfest of the Biblical life of Jesus Christ into a feverishly cutting-edge depiction of modern-day youthful rebellion against the conventions of corporate society, making the symphonious interpretation of the Passion Play as eternal and relevant in the 21st century as it was 50 years ago.
The all-star, 44-member cast – which includes Chilean-Canadian pop rock sensation Beto Cuevas in the starring as Jesus and Mexican Timbiriche heartthrob Erik Rubín as Judas – play out their roles against a spectacular backdrop of dazzlingly breathtaking digital lighting and a dizzying array of 180 video screens that throw in present-day news podcasts of Jesus’ arrests and Facebook-style likes and follows of the flawed hero’s skyrocket to fame.
Christ and his ragged band of disciples, decked out in mismatched street grunge costumes, carry out their performances in the squalor of what appears to be an abandoned inner city tenement, with jagged steel frames and cannibalized cars echoing the decay of urban sprawl and youthful disillusionment, while the establishment figures of Pontius Pilate and the modern-day “Romans” are shown in the lush splendor of sleek, Wall Street-like steel structures with curtained walls of glass and polished marble.
Although, for the most part, Gou and his team stick to the original “Jesus Christ Superstar” music, there are a few minor updates in the play’s libretto, including a Jimmy Hendrix-style electric guitar prelude to Judas’ betrayal scene and an eerie, screeching, atonal overture during the crucial set where Christ is crucified (on a massive, video cross that vaults with a vertiginous flood of images of past and current religious and political altercations) as he wrangles with doubts over his own mortality and his ethical convictions.
Rather than rehash the original cutesy-but-now-tired pharaonic Charleston song-and-dance routine of King Herod mocking Christ to prove his identity through the performance of a miracle or two, the producers have updated the entire scene with a more salacious interpretation that borrows its costumes and choreography from the likes of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” replete with men in corsets doing the cancan.
The role of Herod is performed by famed Mexican actor, comedian and singer Enrique Guzmán, who played the very same role when “Jesucristo Súper Estrella” was first premiered in Mexico in 1984, and his endearing tongue-in-cheek execution of the sarcastic king wins him audience appeal from the minute he steps on stage.
The extraordinarily moving performance of Mexican singer and flamenco dancer María José, who plays the role of Mary Magdalene, is also noteworthy.
Her two solo songs are performed on an otherwise empty stage, visually depicting her social isolation and emotional confusion over her sentiments for Jesus.
But María José’s powerful and hauntingly beautiful voice fills the theater and captivates the entire audience with a four-octave range and skillfully crafted technique that exudes emotion and adds layered texture to her sound.
As Jesus, Cuevas uses his mastery of resonances and acoustics to express the wide pendulum of emotions that are at the crux of the so-called King of the Jews’ tragic demise.
On the other hand, Rubín, as Judas, presents a much lower baritone vocal interpretation of the role than those who have preceded him, which, at first, is a bit jolting.
But Rubín’s spellbinding gravitas and raspy deliverance quickly make the role his own.
In order to ensure a wide range of audiences (which, given the play’s sold-out nightly performances, seems to have been superfluous), the producers enlisted an impressive lineup of popular artists from a variety of musical genres for what are essentially cameo roles, including Mexican pop singer Kalimba to play Simon, rock legend Leonardo de Lozanne to play Pontius Pilate, and Latino crooner Yahir to play Peter.
According to Gou, the Spanish-language “Jesus Christ Superstar” revival took nearly two years to pull together, and slowly evolved with each dramatic rehearsal and creative addition to the cast and crew.
This is a distinctively Mexican production, with an upbeat, contemporaneous flair and a undeniable Latino rock core, but the patent universality of its music, message and enduring humanity give it an amaranthine quality that is as timeless as the Christ story itself.
For performance dates and tickets for “Jesucristo Súper Estrella,” consult the Ticketmaster website.