What’s the Buzz?

Actors Cabaret goes all out with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical Jesus Christ Superstar

Somewhere during the first act of Jesus Christ Superstar — playing now at Actors Cabaret of Eugene — I realize that basically Jesus is every parent who gets kids through the gauntlet of back-to-school. All the extracurricular activities! The Parent Nights! The potlucks! The carpool. It’s just exhausting. 

Act One Jesus is the cooped-up, hen-pecked provider, anointing, healing, hugging — and he’s kind of had it. “There’s too little of me!” he complains. 

Jesus, I feel you. 

Premiering in 1971 (like me!) with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, Superstar has a peppy, disco-era swagger, with earworms like “What’s the Buzz,” “Everything’s Alright” and the show-stopper “King Herod’s Song.” 

One imagines Sir Andrew at his keyboard, plunking out catchy riffs and thinking, “That’d be groovy baby, yeah!” 

The music’s as fun as ever — and you know the plot. 

Directed by Michael Watkins, this production has a lot going for it. Ben Sanders as Jesus has a swingin’, grounded vibe and a blessed set of pipes. Chad Lowe (sadly, not that Chad Lowe) is a tortured, complex Judas; as a foil to our hero, Lowe brings out strong emotional complexities, as we see Jesus’s story unfold through his perspective.  

Ashley Apelzin as Mary Magdalene brings a blend of innocence and devotion, with a honey-sweet voice. 

Cody Mendonca earns major points as the slithering, sniveling Pilate, resplendent in a gown that looks like something Bob Mackie would design for Liz Taylor to wear to the 1986 Grammys.

And MVP goes to Ward Fairbairn as King Herod — whose razzle-dazzle number in Act Two left the audience cheering for more.

Is everyone the greatest singer? No. Does it matter? Not really. The energy is high, and the cast goes for it — reaching sometimes past the point of no return, with a fair share of pitchy, stentorian runs. But I applaud their instinct to go big or go home. 

At times, the balance of sound between the performers and the recorded music makes it a little challenging to hear soloists and, with the various risers onstage, there are moments when performers stand partially in the dark. 

Production design by Joe Zingo carries his typical panache, with the stage transformed into a kind of techno-industrial dystopia, and richly detailed costumes featuring a dusty, road-weary palette and multi-layered textures. Zingo never goes halfway, and it’s worth the price of admission to enjoy Pilate’s glittery gown.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs through Oct. 7 at Actors Cabaret of Eugene; $16-$42.95, tickets at actorscabaret.org or 541-683-4368.

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