50 years on, an exhilarating ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ rocks the National

The material is still vibrant, and the production pays ample homage to the show's origin as a rock opera.

The spectacle and diversion that you will encounter in the 50th Anniversary Tour of Jesus Christ Superstar (at the National Theatre through May 19) functions totally at the service of the music and the lyrics. Musically, the show leans, at least at its beginning, unabashedly into the rock concert direction. But shortly after that beginning, the production asserts its dramaturgical bona fides. The theater craft and talent on display in this show directed by Timothy Sheader are at a very high (and satisfying) level. They amount to a kind of artistic expression of the military practice of “shock and awe,” and they make this event worth the price of the ticket. Of special note is the choreography by Drew McOnie and its execution. And whatever this ensemble of dancers are being paid, it’s not enough.

This production is directed so that the audience focuses on the cast as ensemble and on the show as a whole. Any tendency toward individual star focus is suppressed in favor of presenting the characters in the context of the collaborative. This is the kind of show that makes young theatergoers want to study the craft and become performers and producers themselves.

Elvie Ellis as Judas and the company of the North American Tour of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

When Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were unable to get the backing they needed for a stage production, they released the material for JCS in 1970 as an album. That album became a big hit. The original material is still vibrant and, at the same time, almost nostalgic: some audience members who were old enough to remember the original album could be seen mouthing the lyrics to all of the songs.

This production pays ample homage to the material’s original designation as a “rock opera.” From the beginning, the music comes from the stage in a way that is reminiscent of legendary record producer Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound — a wall that is pierced at emotional highpoints by screaming guitars. (Ryan Edward Wise is music director/conductor.) The audience at the National (ranging in age from about 8 to 75) yelled its approval from that first note.

The music underscores the atmosphere of despair and desolation that is established onstage by the set and costume designs. Any updating of the piece is represented in design elements that are permeated by a Goth esthetic (bombed-out shells of buildings in which we can see the musicians through haze; the actors’ pallid faces, framed by hair streaked in artificial colors). (The set is based on original designs by Tom Scutt and associate scenic designers David Arsenault and David Allen.)

And most emphatically, the intentions of the music are embodied by the choreography (aspirational extensions, epileptic convulsions, and ecstatic writhings).

Jack Hopewell as Jesus and the company of the North American Tour of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

The emphasis on spectacle and diversion comes at a cost. I found it sometimes hard to follow the specifics of the story, even though this is a story that anyone born in a Christianity-suffused culture can hardly avoid having encountered. Where was this taking place exactly? Who these people are and what their relationships are to each other, what they were doing, what threat they represented — the production seemed to assume that we all knew the story or the album and there was no need to fill in any other nuance. The original JCS album was 87 minutes long. This stage production was 90 minutes long. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (which tells the same story) is 3 hours long. Surely, there is some middle ground that could have been found.

Still, this production not only entertains, it exhilarates.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Jesus Christ Superstar plays through May 19, 2024, at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington. Tickets are available online or at the box office.

The cast and creative credits for the touring production are here.

COVID Safety: Masks are strongly recommended but not required for all ticket holders. For full COVID protocol, go here.

Work Light Productions presents The Regents Park Theatre London Production of Jesus Christ Superstar

Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Timothy Sheader
Choreography: Drew McOnie

Cast: Jack Hopewell, Elvie Ellis, Jaden Dominique, Grant Hodges, Alex Stone, Mekhi Holloway, Joshua Bess, Sherrod Brown, Kalei Cotecson, Jaylon Crump, Alec Diem, Jaleel Green, Icis Xavia Hammond, Domanick Anton Hubbard, Haley Huelsman, Jeremy Makana Hurr, Katrice Jackson, Cameron Kuhn, Taylor Lane, Thomas McFerran, Jeilani Rhone-Collins, Johann Santiago Santos, Reese Spencer, TJ Tapp, Anakin Jace White, John Zamborsky

Hair and Costume Design: Tom Scutt
Original Music Supervision: Tom Deering
Lighting Design: Lee Curran
Sound Design: Keith Caggiano
Music Supervisor: David Holcenberg
Associate Director: Brian Harlan Brooks
Set Based on Original Designs by: Tom Scutt
Associate Lighting Designer: Ryan O’Gara
Associate Scenic Designers: David Arsenault, David Allen
Music Direction/Conductor: Ryan Edward Wise
Fight Direction: Rick Sordelet, Christian Kelly-Sordelet


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