You have to give this to Theatre Babylon's Jesus Christ Superstar (which plays through Saturday, Dec. 18; 206-720-1942): It tries. Then it fails. Then it tries again. It continues in this manner for its entire running time, as undaunted in its experiment at Union Garage as the Wright Brothers were at Kitty Hawk. The difference is that the Wrights finally got off the ground for 12 seconds; Superstar is an hour and a half of crash and burn.
If you're going to continue to look on the bright side, however, you'd also have to note that co-directors John Longenbaugh and Brad Cook are able to suggest that even a budget-challenged fringe company might successfully stage Andrew Lloyd Webber's flashy pop opera. The directors dispense with spectacle and instead embrace the show's '70s vibe by transforming the piece into a small-scale Hair, a sort of biblical be-in. There are oh-so-faint signs, here and there, that producing an epic in such an intimate manner could result in a powerful assault on the senses. The result here, unfortunately, is just an assault.
Audience members entering the 49-seat theater are led immediately into the midst of an ensemble of welcoming hippies, all of whom seem to be authentically excited about what they're about to share with you. There's lots of fringe and tie-dye, and everybody's piggybacking or patty-caking or smiling or hugging each other rapturously, so that you're either won over by their groovy sincerity or convinced that after this gig they're going to head over to Sharon Tate's place because Charlie told them to. If you're not a fan of in-your-face theatrical "environments," this ain't for you, man.
Soon, the Casio kicks in—there's just a four-man band (keyboards, drums, and guitars), underwhelming and uncertainly orchestrated, but not as big a deficit as you might think—and the company begins to mime scenes of social strife under the strains of the overture. Actors pretend to shoot up heroin or protest the Vietnam War, and there is even a re-enactment of Kent State, complete with an earnest ensemble member screaming "Why???!!!" over the dead body of another earnest ensemble member. It's ridiculous, though the directors do manage to make some decent stage pictures in a cramped space; the production at its best resembles an especially resourceful version of those shoe-box dioramas you used to have to make in elementary school.
And then the songs begin—and any hope you may have for the ensemble to make miracles from mere ingenuousness evaporates: Nobody can sing. Nobody. The always hardworking Babylonian Cook (he designed the set and lights, too) is also playing Jesus, and he's finally pushed himself too far. It seems at first that his shaggy amiability might put across the gist of the score—which is apparently the general aesthetic conceit at play here—but his casting of himself feels increasingly presumptuous the more it's obvious he won't be able to hit any of the major notes. The rock howl that Webber provides for the moment when Christ berates revelers in the Temple in Jerusalem ("My temple should be a house of prayer!") is reduced to a spoken, petulant scold. When Cook finally takes on the challenges of the ascending aria "Gethsemane" and cries, "Just watch me die!" you might wish to inform him that you'll help him on his journey. This may be the first Jesus to die for his sins.
Cook and Longenbaugh stage the tormented vocal sufferings well enough, knowing when to use the nooks and crannies of the room and when to go for a bravura moment at center—the 39 lashes during Christ's trial before Pilate could've really been a stunner in better circumstances. But it's impossible to overcome the woeful caterwauling and sometimes gonzo theatrics of a desperate cast (at one point during the get-down that accompanies Judas' excruciatingly undersung "Superstar," Jerry Lloyd's Pilate appears to be humping the balcony). The production's biggest gimmick is its use of guest Herods for each of the Sunday matinees: You may get more professional prowess than I did at my matinee—Teatro ZinZanni's Kevin Kent is scheduled for the Nov. 28 show—but you'll never beat the sight of elderly local theater aficionado Joe Boling in a dashiki, which had to be seen to be believed.
Superstar is finally so hilariously anemic that the best you can feel is bad for it. You won't leave believing in God, but you'll wish he were around to put the poor thing out of its misery.