It’s never a bad time to revisit good ole Jesus Christ Superstar. Now, 50 years after it first shattered expectations about what a musical could sound like, might be the best time of all.
The 50th-anniversary national tour now rocking the Kennedy Center offers such a fresh, yet timeless, take on the seminal musical that it is tempting to label it unmissable. Much of the production’s success rests on Timothy Sheader’s shape-shifting direction and Drew McOnie’s frenetic, synchronized choreography. The production, which originated in Britain, won the Olivier Award for best musical revival in 2016. After a two-year delay due to COVID, DC audiences are finally getting their chance to see “what’s the buzz” all about.
Jesus Christ Superstar burst onto the scene as a concept album in 1970, released when composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice were still in college. By 1971, record executives had shut down over 20 unlicensed stage productions that had popped up across the U.S. and Canada before the show finally opened officially on Broadway later that year. People couldn’t get enough of the show’s electric sounds and controversial retelling of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.
Fifty years later, Sheader’s production manages to simultaneously embrace the rock-concert vibe that Webber and Rice originally intended for the musical, and also feel incredibly theatrical. An ensemble of frenetic, synchronized dancers forms the visual centerpiece of the production. The three principal characters, Jesus, Judas, and Mary, sing into handheld microphones, giving the show a sense of intimacy, as if the audience were privy to a recounting of history set to music. And the band, the musical jewel of the show, is wisely placed directly on stage, on the upper level of metal scaffolding that crosses the entire rear of the stage. This allows audiences to bop along with the musicians as they storm headlong through a score that starts with an iconic guitar solo (by Mike Frederick) and quickly blooms into the Overture that has become one of the most beloved and recognizable works of music in the musical theater canon.
The result is a production that feels extremely current and also deeply rooted in the 1970s musical zeitgeist from which it emerged.
Among the lead performers, Jenna Rubaii stands out as the biblical Mary Magdalene, who comforts and supports Jesus. Mary’s three ballads provide soft spots in an otherwise hard-hitting musical, and Rubaii knocks them gently out of the park. The classic tunes “Everything’s Alright,” “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” and “Could We Start Again Please?” all find safe harbor in her folk-tinged voice and magnetic stage presence.
Faring less well are Aaron LaVigne as Jesus and Omar Lopez-Cepero as Judas. Both men clearly have the chops for the belt-heavy roles, but Lopez-Cepero misses several opportunities to crank up the angst his character should be feeling, and both sing with the detachment of someone performing a role rather than inhabiting it.
The supporting cast mostly comprises Jesus’ disciples and the various government officials who determine his ultimate fate. These officials march on and off stage on a large metal cross that lies at an angle across the stage. The fallen cross serves as a runway, a dance floor, and the table for the Last Supper, its constant presence an ominous reminder of its ultimate intended use.
As Annas and Caiaphas, the officials who bribe Judas into giving away Jesus’ whereabouts, Tyce Green and Alvin Crawford complement each other both vocally and thematically, forming a yin and yang of temptation. Green lures Judas toward betrayal with his cloying tenor (“Your help in this matter won’t go unrewarded…”) and Crawford seals the deal with his reverberating bass (“We’ll pay you in silver, cash on the nail…”). Flanked by soldiers, the pair stand on the cross, caressing and humping five-foot-tall mic stands that double as scepters. With their bare chests (and Green’s flowing hair), the pair brings to mind a ’70s glam rock band infused with sinister echoes of military might.
Tommy Sherlock and Paul Louis Lessard also get star turns as government officials. Sherlock is contemplative as Pilate, ruminating over the responsibility of leadership in the song “Pilate’s Dream,” and rising to anger when Jesus refuses to answer his questions. Lessard provides comic relief in the showy “Herod’s Song,” in which he mocks Jesus’ purported powers (“Prove to me that you’re divine, change my water into wine!”) in a charismatic solo performance.
Herod’s flashy gold cape is one of the production’s few departures from a subdued color palette, a palette that starts with comfortable costumes that look borrowed from a post-apocalyptic Lululemon, where Biblical desert-dwellers spend their days dancing to electric guitars. Tom Scutt’s costumes and scenic design give the show a Biblical feel while never feeling performative. The only other pop of color in the production is the glitter that is flung at Jesus in time to the music as he is flogged 39 syncopated times. (Condolences to the stage crew that has to clean up each night.) Lee Curran’s expert lighting design heightens the onstage drama as beams of light criss-cross the stage like laser beams. Floodlights aimed from the back to the front of the stage illuminate the performers from behind, bringing to mind the lighting at a police interrogation.
When I was in college, my best friend and I saw Jesus Christ Superstar whenever we could. She was Catholic and religious, I was not. But for very different reasons, we both came away from Jesus Christ Superstar feeling like we had just had a religious experience. Now, as then, Jesus Christ Superstar is taking audiences to celestial heights.
Running Time: One hour 35 minutes with no intermission.
The Jesus Christ Superstar program is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks and proof of vaccination are required. Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan is here.