Jesus Christ Superstar
At the Lyric Opera House
By Dan Zeff
Chicago-“Jesus Christ Superstar” has passed through many incarnations during its near 50-year hype-driven history. The musical started out as a single recording and graduated into a hit album. That was followed by a Broadway production in 1971, and then a concert version, countless stage presentations, a motion picture, and just recently a television show.
“Superstar” has finally made its way to the Lyric Opera as the company’s entry as the Broadway at Lyric entry in the opera’s 2017-2018 season. This production isn’t the only way to do “Superstar,” but on its own terms it’s tremendously rewarding.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” is the Andrew Lloyd Webber (music)-Tim Rice (lyrics) musical spin on the last seven days of Jesus. It’s been labeled a “rock opera” and rock music dominates the score, at least in the Lyric version, which is imported from its successful revival in London. The production taps into the vast resources of the Lyric company to deliver a spectacle that is dazzling in its technical and dramatic impact. Don’t look for an overwhelming religious experience in this show, but the theatricality is amazing.
Some numbers suggest the pageantry and sweep of the Lyric show—more than 80 artists on the stage, 37 musicians (both rock and classic), more than 150 costumes (including King Herod’s 28-foot long golden cape), and a 37-foot cross illuminated by 101 lights. The moral obviously is that if the resources are available, use them to the hilt.
By opera standards, “Superstar” is a quickie, two acts totally about 90 minutes of playing time separated by an extended intermission. The show has no dialogue, harnessing a sequence of 24 musical numbers to tell the story, the best known songs being the title piece and Mary Magdalene’s quasi love song “”I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” While rock is the dominant musical mode, the score injects moments of pop and gospel, as well as touches that later appear in the Lloyd Webber-Rice hit “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream coat” that was to come 10 years later and deconstruct another Biblical story, though in a distinctive playful context.
The 1971 Broadway production aroused considerable religious controversy. No surprise there. Christian organizations accused “Superstar” of blasphemy and Jewish groups were unhappy with the portrayal of the Jewish priests in a highly unflattering manner. Critics also complained that the staging by director Tom O’Horgan was vulgar and tasteless (both Lloyd Webber and Rice hated O’Horgan’s version but apparently were helpless to intervene). Still, initial critical and religious attacks notwithstanding, the show claims a secure niche among the major musicals of the late 1900’s with a thriving life into the 2000’s.
The inspirational significance of “Superstar” resides in the eye and ears of the beholder, but the theatrical impact of the revival cannot be disputed. Director Timothy Sheader is a genius at maneuvering large blocks of performers, receiving immeasurable assistance from choreographer Drew McOnie. The chorus moves in brilliantly synchronize high speed formations, giving the action an energy and urgency that are eye popping. The production numbers are brilliant but the production periodically clears the stage to focus on a single character, whether it’s Judas, Jesus, or Mary. The performers sing directly to the audience from a stage microphone like they are soloing at a Ravinia concert.
The production is packed with anachronisms, the costumes by Tom Scutt varying between ancient Biblical robes and modern T-shirts and sweatpants. But the audience quickly adjusts to the production’s unconventional aural and visual look, creating a special world that takes the viewer through Jesus’s final week that ends with his scourging, crowning with a wreath of thorns, and agonizing crucifixion. Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg
A handful of characters separate themselves from the dynamic crowd scenes, led by Jesus, Judas, Mary Magdalene, Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, and a small chorus of priests. The intensity of the singing is remarkable. The main performers sell their songs with a passion and a commitment that had the audience whooping with approval throughout the evening, and rightly so. The emotional swings occasionally are a little too abrupt, as in a fey Herod’s eye-popping entrance enclosed in his massive cape. But the production never goes campy or descends into self indulgent and gratuitous visual gimmicks. There is respect for the story, however unconventional the telling.
“Superstar” portrays Jesus as a human being, not as a divinity, a human being with flaws and doubts as well as charisma and dedication and a genius for drawing followers. It’s this complex mix that drew the blasphemy accusations attending the 1971 Broadway staging. But the days of protestors picketing the show are long gone.
Heath Saunders is a brilliant Jesus. His belting includes piercing high register notes that suggest he possesses vocal chords of cast iron. It’s a commanding multi-dimensional performance that Saunders delivers with gripping conviction. Seeing and hearing his Jesus may not evoke a religious experience in the viewer but on a dramatic and musical level Saunders is astonishing.
Ryan Shaw portrays Judas with an intelligence that sets aside any issues of whether or not Judas is one of history’s great villains as Jesus’s betrayer. Shaw’s Judas has his reasons to turn against his leader, convincingly set forth with Shaw’s powerful voice and impressive stage presence. Jo Lampert does beautifully with the woman’s big moment, the score’s stirring signature number, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” a song that is to “Superstar” what Lloyd Webber’s “Memory” is to the composer’s “Cats.”
The other front line singing and acting honors go to Michael Cunio as Pilate, Shaun Fleming as Herod, Cavin Cornwall as Caiaphas, Andrew Mueller as Peter, Joseph Anthony Byrd as Annas, Mykal Kilgore as Simon, and Eric A. Lewis, Drew King, and Antwayn Hopper as the priests. As the “Soul Girls,” Candace Edwards, Keirsten Hodgens, and Sandyredd add a deft Motown touch.
Every background singer-dancer earns commendation for his or her artistry and stamina in the perpetual motion chorus, both en mass and in smaller groupings. Choreographer McOnie has organized them into a high powered formation that is is almost a separate show by itself. Conductor Tom Deering flawlessly melds the various musical styles into a single flow, shifting instrumental gears from heavy metal to pop to classical as the action dictates.
Tom Scutt’s set design is dominated by bi-level compartments of what looks like rust-colored metal girders with a background of massed leafy trees. The vegetation looks more like a rain forest than a location in the ancient Middle East but it works. Lee Curran’s dynamic and sometimes expressionistic lighting reinforces the story’s tumultuous moods, abetted by Nick Lidster’s sound design. The production is a manual on how creative atmospheric sound and sight effects can enhance the narrative.
Familiarity with Tim Rice’s lyrics will benefit the spectator. I lost many of the words to the decibel power of the rock music. The Lyric abandoned its policy of providing supertitles to the singing, doubtless because the lyrics were all in English, but the audience’s approval throughout the evening indicated that most listeners had no difficulty with the words. In any case, the potency of the story and the magnificence of the performances should carry the spectator to an emotional high. Excellence is excellence, even if not every word is understood.
The show gets a rating of
“Jesus Christ Superstar” runs through May 20 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive. Most performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at 1:30 and 7 p.m., Friday at 7 or 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. Tickets are $44 to $219. Call 312 827 5600 or visit www.jcsuperstar.org.
Contact Dan at:ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com April 2018
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