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Talk About the Passion 

Far flung and newish -- that's the theme for today. The Westwego Performing Arts Center is in the final production of its maiden season, while Slidell's Minicapelli's Dinner Playhouse, which rose from its ashes this year after a hiatus of about two decades, is also rapidly approaching its first anniversary.

At Westwego, the Jefferson Performing Arts Society is offering a rousing revival of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. The play first opened in New York City in 1971 and, Lord knows, it's made the rounds since then. The music was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the lyrics by Tim Rice, but the concept is credited to the show's original director, Tom O'Horgan, who was associated with the pioneering La Mama Theater Company of New York (which, by the way, is still going strong).

At any rate, if the title of the show sounds provocative, don't worry, it was meant to. In fact, Rice and Webber despaired of finding a producer for so weird a handling of the Passion. Only after they recorded an album of the music -- that became a bestseller -- did they finally get the play onstage.

I have to admit that I find my eyes rolling when I hear the words "Jesus Christ Superstar," and my teeth start grinding as well when I hear the famous fanfare that goes with those words. To me, equating Jesus Christ with a pop celebrity seems cheesy and lame. Oh well, "shock the bourgeois" was the war cry of bohemia from the get-go. Judging by the enthusiastic audience in Westwego, I am the last bourgeois still to be shocked by this shocker.

Now, in fairness, the shock is limited to the play's title and title song. Otherwise, Jesus Christ Superstar is a straightforward pop retelling of the gospel -- provided, that is, you make allowances for some odd twists, like the punk-rock/glitter number by a bare-chested Herod (Gary Rucker), drowning in a sea of pink-clad cuties.

Director and choreographer Alton Geno clearly relishes the strongly rhythmic score. He has his cast strut a thin line between grotesque tragedy and bouncy, good old-time religion. There is much ensemble dancing, which isn't overly fussy but is a great deal of fun.

Among the standouts in the poised and strong-voiced cast are Michael Patrick Burgess as an emotional Jesus, Vatican Lokey as an embittered Judas, Stacy Taliancich as a dignified Mary Magdalene and Randy Cheramie as a formidable Caiaphas. Dennis Assaf did his usual fine job conducting the JPAS Broadway Pit Band.

Over at Minicapelli's, the Shine Theater Company recently offered Starcrossed, an original entertainment written and directed by Christian Bordelon. Starcrossed was called a play in the playbill, but that may be stretching things. Actually, it was an evening of skits, united by the theme of love. In fact, one of the personae was a lanky Cupid with a pair of large, white, moth-eaten wings. Cupid often appeared at the end of a skit in order to provide a moral of sorts.

The entertainment began with two scenes about scientists. In the first scene, the scientists -- a man and a woman-- wore lab coats and argued about the relative superiority of the sexes. Curiously, the men in the audience seemed neutral, or at least silent, on this issue, but the women in the audience reacted with strong vocal support for the sisterhood.

In the second scene, the scientists did not wear lab coats; they wore loin cloths. They were, in fact, cavemen, but scientists nonetheless. At least one was; he discovered fire, right there in front of our eyes. His caveman colleagues were dutifully impressed. However, they shooed his cave wife away in a flurry of antediluvian macho belligerence.

From there on, we witnessed a Whitman's Sampler of sketches about the battle of the sexes. These ranged from a girl and a guy meeting on a park bench to a wife who wanted cuddles, "but no sex, tonight, please, honey." Although the haggling couples were as far away as ancient Egypt, most were contemporary and familiar. The male gender, in fact, often displayed such a lockerroom attitude you couldn't help rooting for the fair sex -- even if it meant "cuddling" all night.

In addition to the live sketches, there were two comic video segments. And, after intermission, a few of the sketches went for sentiment rather than humor. If, on the downside, the show was uneven and a bit long, then on the upside it had an unpretentious charm. A tip of the hat to a game cast: Christina Cuenca, Andy McNeil, William Fanning Schneider, Shannon Gildea, Tom Hassinger, Jamie Choina, Louis Rover, Rose Marie Sand and Barry Lemoine.

click to enlarge Starting again: Michael Patrick Burgess gives his all in the title role of JPAS' current production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Westwego Performing Arts Theatre.
  • Starting again: Michael Patrick Burgess gives his all in the title role of JPAS' current production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Westwego Performing Arts Theatre.
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