Religion The Rockin’ Way In The Fiftieth Anniversary Tour of Jesus Christ Superstar

The arrival of the fiftieth anniversary tour of Jesus Christ Superstar at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center is perhaps the perfect occasion to reflect on the fact that the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber have become such an established part of the modern musical theatre canon that it can be easy to forget just how damn weird they are. Case in point: a rousing rock musical that takes as its subject the persecution and eventual execution of the claimed son of God. Undeniably a bold move, especially for an era when rock opera itself was still a relatively young genre, and one that invited criticism from Jews and Christians alike— with the Christians accusing the show of blasphemy in its ambiguous portrayal of its central figure and Jews up in arms about the portrayal of those of their religion as mostly villains.

In any case, as a devil-may-care agnostic, I had no such ideological objection to Jesus Christ Superstar, which was at least consistently compelling if not often terribly nuanced. As this is the first production of the musical I’ve seen, I went in relatively blind, knowing only the show’s somewhat ubiquitous title song and its breakout ballad “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.” From especially the first of the two, it’s easy to come away with an expectation that Jesus Christ Superstar might be a feel-good extravaganza rather than the surprisingly dark story that this iteration revealed it to be. The production, which was based on a 2017 London revival of the piece directed by Timothy Sheader, was reportedly staged in such a way as to emphasize these grittier themes. Some of the more major changes that became apparent in my research are the elimination of the traditional intermission in favor of a full-speed-ahead ninety minute odyssey and the placement of the band onstage and addition of microphones for some of the characters’ musical numbers to create a rock-concert like atmosphere.

Paul Louis Lessard  in the North American Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. (Photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman)

Also essential to this updated vision was new, sensual, and evocative choreography by Drew McOnie, which was definitely one of the show’s strong points. The costume and scenic design also added to the aura of understated rock-inspired intensity, with the whole thing calling to mind a more modern, Rent-like vibe as opposed to the show’s seventies roots. While I found this approach generally an effective one, I also have to note that quite a lot of lyrics were difficult to make out between their loud accompaniment and a more rock-style vocal delivery, which at times made it difficult to ascertain quite what was being sung about—a substantial obstacle for a sung-through piece of theatre as opposed to mere concert. And while I do know, of course, the basic story of Jesus Christ and how he met his end, I only know it in relatively broad strokes, which made some of the references to more obscure details or figures somewhat confusing without more narrative context or context that was delivered in a way that was physically easier to hear. 

Omar Lopez-Ceper in the North American Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. (Photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman)

However, aside from that, the catchy and emotionally effective score of Jesus Christ Superstar was another of its strong points, with the reprising of phrases and key musical motifs creating a sense of cohesion across it and keeping us engaged throughout the story despite its notable lack of character development and relatively surface-level narrative. But though I found the script itself to be somewhat lacking in depth in its own right, it still manages to be quite thought provoking in its entanglement with figures of substantial cultural significance and in the way it retells well-established history with enough of a twist to perhaps make one question their perspective. 

The company of the North American Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. (Photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman)

If you squint, you can make out some fascinating themes of the dangers of celebrity culture in the way Jesus is worshiped beyond all reason and then just as quickly spurned by his followers the minute it is to their benefit, and in the way that his image and ego threatens to become more important than his actual message or beliefs. It’s also worth thinking about the fact that the actions of the historically hated traitor Judas could be looked at as quite reasonable without the benefit of hindsight, and when one considers just how dangerous a false messiah can be. As far as the cast goes, the overall intensity and stylization of the piece drowned out most of the subtler emotional undertones, but the actors did seem to be conveying the right general vibes for their characters, and certainly had the vocal chops to wow the audience more than once with their achievements, especially the three leads: Aaron Lavigne as Jesus, Omar Lopez-Cepero as Judas, and Jenna Rubai as Mary Magdalene. Alvin Crawford as the strikingly deep-voiced priest Caiaphas and Paul Louis Lessard as flamboyant King Herod also left an impression, as did “mob leader” Sarah Parker’s ecstatic dance solos. In fact, the entire ensemble deserves quite a lot of credit for keeping up with the show’s high-octane physical and vocal marathon! The use of familiar imagery and familiar characters also means that key moments pack a substantial emotional punch, which, combined with some creative visual quirks, makes for a thrilling and cathartic conclusion. So, in the end, though I don’t think Jesus Christ Superstar going to be joining Lloyd Webber’s Phantom Of The Opera on my favorites shelf, I did find it both incredibly entertaining and consummately interesting, if more for its cultural context, thematic boldness, and fun flairs of theatricality than as a piece of theatre in its own right. If you feel like checking out the goods and spending a little time this week rocking out with Jesus, you’ve got until this June 5th to catch Jesus Christ Superstar at the Arsht!

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