Live review: ‘Peaches Christ Superstar’ at the Orpheum Theatre
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‘Don'tcha think it’s rather funny / I should be in this position,’ the Canadian singer-rapper-performance artist Peaches sang halfway through the first act of ‘Peaches Christ Superstar,’ her surprisingly faithful one-woman (plus remarkable pianist) rendition of the classic rock opera ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ Well, yes, rather funny indeed.
Since her 2000 debut, ‘The Teaches of Peaches,’ the artist born Merrill Nisker has specialized in raunchy electro punk, in songs about being ‘AA but thinking XXX.’ Here she was at the Orpheum on Friday, a skinny, gap-toothed Jew playing the Messiah — and Mary Magdalene and Judas and King Herod and all the characters in the 1970s musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
And playing them straight. Peaches sang ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him,’ the romantic confessional of a onetime harlot, in a sweet, pure soprano, as if she had found her inner singer-songwriter (she was in a folk trio in the ‘90s). The irony was in the fact of the performance, not the performance itself, which was delivered with nary a wink or a nod. Who knew that Peaches, lover of the base and the bass, had a voice that would make Joan Baez proud, that Taylor Swift would give her eyeteeth for, that even Simon Cowell would have to applaud. It was a strange night, and strange is good.
Peaches took the stage wearing a white leotard with a giant padded scoop collar. Her hair, the side that wasn’t shaved, was shaggy and dyed blond. She looked like ‘Aladdin Sane'-era David Bowie without the makeup — without any makeup at all. The stage was bare except for Peaches and her longtime collaborator, Chilly Gonzales, at the piano.
‘Peaches Christ Superstar’ is all about the songs and the singing. Peaches has said that she has loved the show since she was a teenager. Her original performance of it this year in Berlin was almost stopped by the German rights owners; in the end, it received Rice’s blessing. She sings Rice and Webber’s smart gospel and rock melodies with the earnest enthusiasm of a ‘Glee’ hopeful auditioning for all the parts of a high school musical.
It’s a fool’s errand to attempt such a complicated libretto all by oneself, with only one intermission, with little chance to catch one’s breath and no one there to cover you if you lose your pitch or wind or place or nerve. The show was not technically perfect. Peaches started Act 2 slightly out of tune — but quickly recovered. She’s a musician, not an actress, and her attempts at sneering or betrayed facial expressions were sometimes comic, even Brechtian.
During that Act 2, Peaches, an androgyne who switched easily from male to female parts, changed into a gold suit with a grotesquely large, padded jacket, like an overdetermined B-boy uniform. Her eyes were heavily made up and her lips blood-red. She looked like a kabuki Cleopatra diva, the Superstar come to claim the crown snatched by some lady named Gaga. She added more of her own theatrical twists and hit her mark in unusual numbers: As a very fallibly human Christ in the angsty act-opener ‘Gethsemane,’ more than as the campy vaudeville King Herod. At the end, eight vibrant young dancers who looked like they’d stepped out of some time portal from Alvin Ailey’s 1970s dance company joyfully lifted her onto the cross. It was that kind of show.
As impressive as Peaches’ moxie, stamina and tone were, special note must be made of Gonzales’ rolling jazz accompaniment. He also had to provide a multitude of orchestral voices with just his two hands; his piano kept Peaches going without fail or flash. The pair began working a decade ago as cheeky, DIY techno artists. Now they’re flaying open a historic timepiece about faith, betrayal, zealotry and love. ‘Tis the season, after all. -- Evelyn McDonnell