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Jesus Christ Superstar, a thrilling musical of the year

‘Jesus’ in white with disciples and doubting Judas. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG
‘Jesus’ in white with disciples and doubting Judas. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the most ambitious musicals ever staged in Nairobi. It was especially so given the way the show’s director Stuart Nash insisted it be set to live (not pre-recorded) music. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score also isn’t easy but Nash was fortunate to find the Kenya National Youth Orchestra up to the challenge. And the Kenya National Theatre the perfect venue for this Easter holiday event.

There were many other reasons why JCS wasn’t easy to stage. First off, there’s Webber’s unconventional interpretation of the story which might not have been to everybody’s taste. Then there’s the fact that the costuming was contemporary and casual. Only the high priests were decked out in ornamental robes. King Herod was also dressed in a bright golden gown. But again, some may have wondered why Nash cast a woman in that male role. Once you saw how forcefully Mkamzee Mwatela played Herod’s part, you could understand why this marvelous actress was specially selected for the part.

The fact that Herod’s guards frolicked (as if in a can-can chorus line) with their ‘King’ wearing nothing but a matching gold mini-skirt also might have been unsettling for orthodox or fundamentalist Christian followers.

So to fully appreciate the production, one had to come with a wide open mind, prepared for a show full of surprises. For instances, one might expect a musical to be replete with rich, well-trained voices. Unfortunately, the only truly beautiful voice was Miriam Nyokabi’s who as Mary Magdalene was a joy to listen to.

Dan Aceda playing the title role of Jesus was the one professional singer in the show. However, the musical range required to sing Jesus’ part was immense and slightly beyond Aceda’s.

Nonetheless, once he got comfortable on stage (and KNT’s technical team got the sound system right), his character was far more convincing and charismatic than he was on opening night.

It was Mugambi Nthega as Judas who proved that even with an imperfect voice, if one performed with electrifying energy and the acting capacity that Mugambi clearly has, the actor could carry his musical role with the passion, persuasive power and conflicted pain that Judas clearly had. Indeed, the most emotive moments in the show were when Judas connected with Jesus, especially when he came to kiss the man who’d once been his closest friend.
Both Jesus and Judas knew the kiss signaled a treacherous betrayal. And probably Aceda’s most sensitive scene was when his Jesus was alone in the Garden of Gethsemane sharing his deepest thoughts with God. He was clearly agonized, knowing what torturous times were about to come.

The horror of Jesus’ torture at the hand of Pilate’s soldiers and at the prodding of the Pharisees was graphically portrayed in this production of events leading up to and including the crucifixion.

Ultimately my only problem with JCS was not the cast, crew or orchestra’s performance. It was with Webber’s script which closed with the finality of Jesus’ death and without a hint of redemptive resurrection. Obviously, this is my problem alone, but I would have loved to see a bit of improvisation on Nash’s part to give us a slightly more joyful ending.

After all, some folks see the Easter story as pure fiction anyway. But Nash is a professional who had to be true to the playwright’s script which, in fact remained true to the scriptural text. Only that one couldn’t tell in the end if Jesus was merely a man or the son of God.

margaretta.gacheru@gmail.com