Peaches appears onstage wearing a skin-tight white leotard, with a stuffed collar as thick as a fire hose wrapping her neck, when she begins singing the lyrics to Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1970s musical by the masters of decidedly unhip theater, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The audience waits for a knowing wink. A sly nudge. Anything to suggest this is one giant joke. It’s Peaches, after all – the electro-rap chanteuse who ten years earlier urged listeners to “fuck the pain away.”
But it never comes, and that’s the absurd beauty of Peaches Christ Superstar, which made its U.S. debut at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art on Friday: she never reduces her tribute to some ironic gaffe. It’s just Peaches, in a one-woman show backed by piano on a bare stage, sincerely belting out Webber and Rice’s story about Jesus’ last days. Apparently for no other reason than that she simply loved the songs as a teenager.
The combination sounds unlikely – Peaches singing “This Jesus Must Die”? – but what’s most surprising is that she actually pulls it off. Slipping from one character to another simply by changing her voice’s timbre, Peaches carried the entire rock opera impressively, particularly during her rendition of “Everything’s Alright” where her vocals switched seamlessly between the roles of Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene.
Peaches has built her reputation off her wild live shows (complete with stunning laser light rigs) but Peaches Christ Superstar is devoid of any visual gimmickry. The voice is the star of the show. Throughout, Peaches’ movements remained sparse; she often stood idle or made simple hand gestures. Piano accompaniment by long-time collaborator Chilly Gonzalez remained unobtrusive. Even Peaches’ costume – that wide, tubular collar – kept the visual focus on her throat.
This minimalism was almost necessary because, really, it was easy to think she’d bust into “Fuck the Pain Away” at any moment. And it took Peaches the length of the first half to remind the crowd that she, in fact, would not be commanding the crowd to suck “on her titties”- which only made that minimalism and sincerity all the more convincing for the show’s second half, when her voice reaches full-blown rock-opera wail. The show could use some fine-tuning, however: a few of Peaches’ dance moves make her look like that tipsy aunt at a wedding reception.
Most revelatory was how Peaches evoked deep emotion without ever being overwrought. In the film version of Superstar, when Jesus drives the moneychangers from the Temple, he goes on a balls-out rampage, swinging a rifle like a madman. Peaches delivered the same emotions by simply singing one line and the lyrics “Get out!” Who knew she could make such a convincingly pissed-off messiah?
By show’s end, Peaches was surrounded by a quintet of ragtag dancers as she raised her arms to form a cross. When the production opened in Berlin earlier this year, that show ended with an elaborate, phallus-topped crucifix. Reports preceding the Boston opening said the States-side crucifix would be vaginally-oriented. But neither sexualized symbol appeared on Friday, however, and the production fared better for it. With Peaches involved, the sexuality was implied – and the production’s minimalism and her vulnerable performance was way more shocking than a giant sex organ.
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