Jam-packed with songs, the cultural touchstone Jesus Christ Superstar (music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice) continues to resonate, but probably not the way it did in the 70s. Based loosely on the last few days of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, Webber has famous personalities collide in song. This 50th anniversary tour packs lush rock orchestration, memorable performances, and heavily gestural dance into an enjoyable 90-minute experience.
The dense and clever lyrics of this piece are a bit hard to fully unpack during the performance, so I would encourage brushing up on the Passion Story if you don’t remember all the players. The story opens with Jesus (Aaron LaVigne) coming to Jerusalem with his disciples (groupies?) in tow. Judas (James Delisco Beeks) questions Jesus’ motives and plans for the disciples (“Heaven on their Minds”), foreshadowing his future betrayal of Jesus--Judas is meant to be much more relatable in Superstar than in the Gospels. Beeks comes to the role with a fantastic voice and the right amount of defiance and concern. For his part, LaVigne’s Jesus feels like he has been plucked off the modern-day Christian-Rock circuit-- from his hair cut to his melancholy stare, he feels effortlessly cool. Mary (Jenna Rubaii), was one of my favorite performers of the evening. During her earworm songs (“Everything Alright” and “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”) Rubaii strikes the perfect balance between nostalgia for the original score while embracing some more contemporary folk rock vibes (think The Lumineers or Brandi Carlile). This cast will make you remember how young all these protagonists really were, making the tragedy of their story all the more impactful.
The stage is filled with a large, worn, two-story wooden scaffold. At its top, crosses abound as some horizontal and vertical pieces fall to connect into perfect squares. Instead of being consigned to a pit, the band resides on the second level, allowing musicians opportunities to be seen during their rockstar solos. There aren’t really any set changes; instead, spaces are reused in different ways to signal ever-changing locations. For instance, a large inverted and slanted wood cross lays just off center and acts, in turn, as boulders, runways, platforms, and even the table for The Last Supper (pictured above).
Particularly notable in this production is the incredibly athletic choreography by Drew Mconie. This coupled with Tom Scutt’s costume design (a combination of street clothes, period appropriate garb and new-agey yoga wear) pull this story into our present moment. At different times the ensemble’s dances makes them feels like different types of groupings -- flocks of birds, club background dancers, and (in “The Temple”) grasping clawing zombies. I especially enjoyed the Pharisee grouping, which felt a bit like a boy-band/Supremes mash up, led by the formidable Caiaphas (Alvin Crawford) and crony Annas (Tyce Green).
This production allows the Passion Story to be presented in abstract, allowing for new nuance and thought. For example, when Pilate (the compelling Tommy Sherlock) has Jesus flogged, there isn’t a whip or lash to be found. Instead, in time with Pilate’s words, the full ensemble throws handfuls of golden glitter at the bound Jesus. The glitter abstracts what should be violent and gory and turns it into something beautiful and deeply disturbing. As his body begins to shine from the glitter, he begins to look like the titular Superstar. By the end of the scene he resembles a male model at a photoshoot (ripped, topless and shining), but the violence of the group’s actions remains. It points to the ways fame can tear people apart—the ways it can cause others to think they own the Superstar.
Many people have condemned Jesus Christ Superstar for being irreverent. While that reading is certainly easy (and perhaps even encouraged), watching this production the reinforces the humanity of everyone involved in this famous story. In town for two more nights, check out Jesus Christ Superstar at the Orpheum.