Boiler Room brings the ultimate hippie passion play back to life in Jesus Christ Superstar 

With the 40th anniversary of Woodstock last week, you'd think some local theater company might've ventured forth with a production of Hair, the quintessential '60s-era rock musical. None emerged, but Boiler Room Theatre has stepped in the direction of Aquarian idealism with the next best thing—Jesus Christ Superstar, which post-dated the Summer of Love by just a year, and was steeped in that heady era's youthful rebellion. Just one more upraised middle finger from the counterculture to The Man.

JCS caused a stir at a time when Vietnam war protests and anti-establishment fervor were still very much in the air. A rock opera telling the story of Jesus' passion and death? What may have seemed blasphemous then was a great idea in retrospect. The story compels—not least of all because it's one we all know so well. And Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's hodgepodge score endures. Here's a case where being ahead of your time really pays off.

As the strains of the Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today" play over the BRT sound system, you enter the theater and travel back four decades, setting the stage for co-directors Jamey Green and Billy Ditty, who attempt to re-create the musical's flower-power energy. Anyone looking for an innovative stylistic take on what is becoming an old warhorse will probably be disappointed, yet the show's definitely worth a look if only for curiosity's sake.

Very much like Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, JCS is essentially a cantata, relying on stalwart singing to relate both plot and character. That happens here with regularity, though individual players rarely distinguish themselves.

Ciaran McCarthy is a brooding, anxious and soulful-looking Judas, and in his misdeeds he is every bit the show's co-star. He acts credibly, including hanging himself with dramatic flair, though his understated rendition of the critical "Heaven on Their Minds" only scratched the surface of its potential power.

Joann Coleman's Mary Magdalene has the right wounded yet beatific demeanor. Her singing is proficient and effective in numbers like "Everything's Alright" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him," though she tends toward the annoying vibrato excess of lesser American Idol contestants. (Some listeners may find that fashionable.)

Ben Van Diepen is the humanized, ultimately reluctant redeemer Jesus. He sings capably, but rarely takes a noticeable solo. That's because he's usually surrounded by hordes of followers or detractors, putting him in the middle of good numbers like the intense "The Temple," the humorous "What's the Buzz" and the familiar "Hosanna"—which, with its captivating harmonic changes, is as catchy as ever.

Plus it's ultimately Van Diepen's vehicle, and he withstands his betrayal, his 40 whiplashes and his crown of thorns with stoic nobility before enduring his crucifixion. In fact, the latter proves stirring, and hats off to Van Diepen for bearing that literal cross. In visceral effect, his performance is no rival for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, but it's fine live theater, with just the right amount of pathos.

"King Herod's Song," the long-awaited Act 2 vaudeville showstopper, is usually an automatic people-pleaser. While certainly no failure, this version—featuring respected funnyman Scott Rice—is more effete than slam-dunk hilarious, and thus a bit disappointing, even if determinedly lively.

Elsewhere, Devin Clevenger brings a nice big voice to his Simon Zealotes portrayal in "Poor Jersusalem," Alan Lee postures ruggedly as Pontius Pilate and W. Scott Stewart leads the high priests with his deep baritone in the briskly effective "This Jesus Must Die."

The Ditty choreography incorporates shimmy-and-clap moves, hints of bacchanalia and a general sense of hippie enthusiasm throughout, while the cast of 19 cavorts with celebratory ease in Melissa Cannon's costume mix of contemporary denim, peasant dress and period robes. 

Co-director Green also conducts an eight-man band sharply through the piece's blessed eclecticism, with guitarist Joey Green adding crisp licks throughout. Yet there were also points where the combo's sound was too brassy, with the horns actually drowning out the singers on occasion. 

In short, this Jesus Christ Superstar looked like a bit of a happy mess on its opening weekend. Despite its undisciplined feel, it nevertheless exuded sincerity and entertainingly exploited its memorable score and message of love and sacrifice.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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