“So you’ve seen the John Legend one,” Dania began, as they walked away from the imposing facade of the Civic Opera House.
“Yes, the live one NBC just did,” Eleanor said. “Which the Jesus in this version was apparently in, but I wouldn’t recognize anyone.”
“Well, duh,” Dania said. “On TV there’s a million people in the ensemble, and at an opera house he’s about a million miles from your seat. I could barely make out which apostles were which.”
“Ah, I do love the Lyric’s space,” Gwen mused. “So opulent. All that lovely gold relief. They don’t build them like that anymore.”
“Well, Jesus wouldn’t like it,” Dania added. “Considering how he yells at all the gold people.”
“They’re sinners,” Gwen countered. “Salespeople and prostitutes and people like that. It’s the Cleansing of the Temple. It’s not just because they’re gold.”
“But…they are gold,” Eleanor said.
Gwen’s lips pursed. “Okay, yes, they’re gold, but that’s not why – never mind.”
“I know it’s a staging thing,” Dania said, nudging Gwen’s shoulder. “just giving you a hard time.”
“That’s gotta be a terrible show to stage manage,” Gwen thought aloud.
“Why?” asked Eleanor. “The scale? Dealing with fifty actors?”
“That, certainly,” Gwen conceded. “I was thinking about the glitter. You literally have a scene where glitter drops constantly throughout it. Blowing all over the stage. And then they toss four metric tons of glitter on Jesus at the end. It’s ridiculous. It’s probably never coming out of the stage.”
“Plus you’ve got the band and everything,” Dania added. “Stage managing any opera is gotta be hard.”
“Yeah, nice job…” Gwen removed her program to glance at the endless list of collaborators. “Nice job, Rachel A. Tobias.”
“The A stands for awesome,” Dania quipped. Gwen side-eyed her.
“Well, I think we can all agree it was pretty good,” Eleanor said.
“Oh, absolutely,” Gwen agreed. “It’s such a hard piece to stage and they did such an excellent job on it. Every musician in the show was perfect, from the Mary to the Judas, to the guy playing Simon who was really into it.”
“Yeah, I wanted more of him,” Eleanor said. “I wanted more of the bald powerful guy too.”
“Sure, him. There’s so many people that show up once and then disappear.”
“It’s a flaw of the writing,” Gwen began, before backtracking. “Not of the writing so much of in the production. In smaller productions they have some of those featured actors double in the ensemble. Annas and Caiaphas, King Herod, even Peter.”
“Oh, I wanted so much more of Herod,” Eleanor grinned.
“Nope,” Dania interrupted, her eyes staring into space. “I saw enough of Herod. I saw a lot of Herod, I think I’m good.”
“Shame he’s got literally one song,” Gwen said. “They did the same thing to Alice Cooper in the NBC version.”
“Who was this Herod?” Eleanor asked. “Apparently all the leads are famous or something.”
Gwen checked the program again. “Shawn Fleming. He’s – oh, he was on Kim Possible!”
“Shut up, no way,” Eleanor said, grabbing the program.
“It looks like he did mostly voice work, but now he’s a singer and drummer,” Gwen said. “I thought he did a good job.”
“Teacher’s Pet!” Eleanor added. “I forgot about that show!”
Gwen took the program back before Eleanor could fall further down a pit of nostalgia. “Mykal Kilgore is the cool Simon, by the way.”
“Yeah, he was good too,” Dania said. “It was all pretty good. I had some trouble following what was happening, but I think that’s the point? I couldn’t tell.”
“It’s a rock album first and a musical second,” Gwen admitted. “I think it assumes prior knowledge of either your previous passion for the album, or – well, the Passion.”
“That’s what it felt like,” Dania agreed. “I kinda makes me want to go find the album. The original one.”
“I have it, I’ll burn you a copy.”
“Yeah, I want to know what everyone was saying,” Dania added, with a slight smile.
“Eh, less important,” Eleanor said. “What matters is the energy and the emotion. I mean, it’s a rock concert. I feel like that’s the point we’re circling around: it’s a rock concert more than it is a narrative.”
“But it’s clearly not missing characters and motivations,” Gwen said. “It’s unfair to use the ‘rock concert’ nature to write off the acting work.”
“Which is I think what Dania is getting at,” continued Gwen. “It is sort of hard to tell what people are thinking at any given time because it’s so massive. Consider, we were up in a balcony – I have no idea what people’s facial expressions were in certain scenes. Some of the acting nuance gets lost in a space this size.”
“Is it a trade off worth having, though,” Eleanor suggested, “to get the moments like ‘The Temple,’ or the crazy ending?”
“Maybe,” Gwen said. “But the bits you should remember, like ‘Gethsemane’ – well, actually…”
“I loved ‘Gethsemane,'” Dania said. “Jesus with his guitar rocking out and yelling at God. There’s a relatable moment.”
“Yeah, Gwen, are you going to tell me ‘Gethsemane’ suffered from scale?”
“Okay, there are exceptions,” Gwen grumbled. “With a very talented performer who’s right up at the front of the stage. But in quieter moments I lost some of the acting. Take Mary – I think Jo Lampert is fantastic, and I enjoyed ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him,’ but I couldn’t pick up a lot of ‘Everything’s Alright.'”
“Yeah, that one,” Dania agreed. “Like, I get that the acting was probably happening, and was good, but we’re five hundred feet from the stage. I’m only really getting the dancers in the back and the sound of the singers.”
Gwen began to step in, before Dania cut her off. “Which is not bad singing,” she added, quickly. “And I get that you can act through vocals. But you know what I mean.”
“I can’t see a way of combating that, though,” Gwen shrugged. “Considering it’s a 4,000-seat house. Short of cutting off seating in the balconies to force people to sit in the front section.”
“I mean, I think I know what the balance is,” Eleanor suggested.
Eleanor threw a hand back towards the Opera House, now buried deep in the urban jungle of Chicago behind them.
“Do what they did,” she said. “Make it really huge and epic in scale, but cast good performers in the roles, so they can make you care about the characters even when you can’t see their faces. Not to mention: it’s a rock concert. Acting is important, but is still secondary to the singing, and that’s mic’d. So we’re good.”
Dania rolled her eyes. “I mean, sure. But if you’re going to a performance at an opera house, you’re not just going for the music. Otherwise, you’d just listen to the album again.”
“Which people do,” Eleanor said. “It was an album first, and a stage musical later.”
“But if you’re saying this argument about ‘the acting isn’t as important…'”
“Not that it isn’t as important, but that you cast really good singers first, and the acting is whatever can transfer to a massive house like this. I mean, it’s literally Jesus. The stakes are as high as they will ever get. The acting beats aren’t exactly subtle or require a chamber opera.”
“Not to mention, that’s pretty much what opera is,” Gwen said. “Story in service of the music, not the other way around. The plots of operas are ridiculous – have you ever seen The Magic Flute?”
“Then why do people go to an opera?” Dania asked. “There are recordings of opera scores. Can’t people just listen to that?”
“Why do people go to concerts instead of listening to albums?” Eleanor asked. “You’re chipping at the core of why people go to live entertainment in general.”
“Musicians change things in concerts!” Dania said. “They don’t just perform the whole album straight through, unless it’s a concept album like Tommy or something.”
“But this is a concept album, that’s pretty much what they’re doing!” Eleanor said.
“I know!” Dania said. “So I don’t see why you’re arguing about acting!”
“You brought up acting!” Eleanor shouted.
“Because I couldn’t always tell what it was!” Dania echoed. “But apparently it doesn’t matter as much as the music does!”
“Well, then I guess I got the right experience out of it!”
Dania twitched, trying to resist smiling at the absurdity.
“So I guess we agree with each other that it was good!”
Eleanor also suppressed a smile. “Yep!”
Silence fell between the two of them for the briefest of moments.
Gwen, edging away on the sidewalk, looked from Eleanor to Dania. “Do you two need a minute?”
“It was good! I liked it!” Dania said. “It’s got talented performers!”
“I agree!” Gwen said, trying not to yell over her friend. “Why are we yelling?”
With a snap, Dania’s tense body language dropped to relaxation. “I don’t know, just something to get riled up about, I guess.”
Gwen gave another moment’s silence, before adding, “you are weird.”
“I just sat through a two-hour rock opera,” Dania said. “My emotions are frayed. Give me time to come down.”
Image Credit: Todd Rosenberg Photography