Theater Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR 50TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR

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by Tony Frankel on October 30, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

50 YEARS SINCE ITS BIRTH AND
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR FINALLY RISES AGAIN

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar is given the rock concert treatment for its 50th Anniversary Tour, and that’s precisely what it needs to soar. It’s a mash-up of stadium staging with lead actors holding microphones and stands, music video, and Broadway-style production values and voices. With Shawn Gough’s astoundingly tight music direction, Drew McOnie’s hot-blooded aerobic choreography, Lee Curran’s magical dramatic lighting, and a beautiful blend of vocals by an immense ensemble this Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre 2016 production is the closest thing you’ll get to heaven. It isn’t the second coming it could have been — but I’d sure as hell see it again. And that’s saying something.

There are 80+ recordings of JC Superstar from over a dozen countries, not one of which in totality tops the original 1970 Concept Album. This tour, which runs well into 2020, returns to that raw street-wise power, and elucidates the timelessness of Webber’s score, still his best. Never intended to be an accurate portrait of Christ’s passion, the story is Mr. Rice’s idea of what Judas’s thoughts and motivations may have been, not a Biblical portrayal at all.

Interestingly enough, as much as I loved it, the three leads are somewhat disappointing – if, that is, you are expecting a blend of rock star vocals and great acting. It may be the fault of Timothy Sheader’s direction, which gives Jesus, Mary, and Judas scant sense of backstory and relationship, of which there is precious little to begin with. The leads play second fiddle to the melee and get somewhat lost. Maybe Sheader — who wisely dropped the intermission — thought any of that would get in the way of his hurtling high-voltage trajectory.

Still, James Delisco Beeks plays the betrayer with a perfect blend of Broadway chops and show biz savvy, even as he lacks distinction. Beeks is particularly dramatic in “Damned for All Time” (when accepting his cash for ratting on Jesus to Caiaphas) and in “Judas’s Death” when his guilt and grief ultimately consume his life (with the help of a noose, here a dangling orange mic cord). When he comes back from the dead, there’s enough super-rockin’ dynamism — and seriously tight back-up Soul Girls: Keirsten Nicole Hodgens, Sandy Redd, Jasmine Schmenk — to make you get a ticket to come back (there are many cities for this tour, but runs are painfully short, most a week, so act fast).

Jenna Rubaii is solid as Mary Magdalene with her plaintive, seductive, unadorned soulfulness in both “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Everything’s Alright”; Rubaii is a worthy heir to this famous role.

Gorgeous songwriter Aaron LaVigne’s Jesus simply isn’t asked to blow you away like Ted Neeley or Steve Balsamo did. His tenor is lovely and lyrical, and his expressiveness and unique vocal timbre are awesome, even as he is better suited for pop. It’s pretty damned sexy when he accompanies himself on guitar. He makes a noble attempt at emotion in “Trial Before Pilate,” but veers from rock star top notes in “The Temple” and we need those to get a glimpse of Jesus’s torment. And while LaVigne also resorted to actorly mannerisms like scratching the back of his head to portray conflict, I still enjoyed watching him.

Keith Caggiano and Nick Lidster’s sound design is one of the best I’ve heard for a national tour, and it was clear that lost lyrics were due to the lack of diction from some singers.

It’s the smaller roles that blew me away, and I could hear every lyric from Alvin Crawford, who is not just slimy as Caiaphas, the High Priest of Israel, but he snatches those low bass notes and spears them through the back of your head; Crawford is hands down the best Caiaphas I have ever heard. Tyce Green turns the manipulative, bullying priest Annas into a Mordred-like villain, and Tommy Sherlock is thrilling as Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea. Can these cats ever sing!

King Herod, a ruler of Galilee, has but one song. Paul Louis Lessard, appearing in costumer Tom Scutt’s remarkable shimmering gold cape, ensures that “King Herod’s Song” is the showstopper it was meant to be. This bouncy vaudeville insulting the powers of Christ is catchy fun, but Lessard makes it scary as well.

Mr. Scutt’s set design has a runway-like crucifix, especially effective when Caiaphas and his cronies crack down on Christ, and the orchestra is on levels behind the playing area; when Joe LaRocca appears with a searching, scratchy, squealing saxophone solo, it’s time for goosebumps.

The main themes here — power struggles, control, greed — are remarkably clear, visceral and palpable. As if to thrust us into the modern age’s divide between the haves and have-nots, Mr. Sheader has his players hurl sparkling gold dust at Jesus to represent each lash he receives. It’s a coup de théâtre, one of many in this most admirable revival.

photos by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade

Jesus Christ Superstar
national tour
Work Light Productions
reviewed at Hollywood Pantages October, 2019
tour continues into 2020; for dates and cities, visit JCS

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen Hermsmeyer November 20, 2019 at 11:08 pm

I agree with this review! Certainly the priests, particularly Caiaphas, were the best I ever heard. Amazing performances that did not disappoint.

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Roger E Cummins December 2, 2019 at 8:08 am

I don’t know how to hate this. As a suggested alternate ending to this “update for the new millennium”, imagine music arranger Timothy Sheader and choreographer Drew McOnie being crucified alongside man-bun Jesus, who is covered in gold flakes from that viscous glitter-lashing, and Ted Neeley appearing as Chamuel saying, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

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Anthony Joseph December 20, 2019 at 1:58 pm

I give this show 5 stars, the set and the talent, and the message.
Just saw this nation tour in Baltimore and it was great. The approach and performance were both exciting and memorable. The band was on stage and they brought the songs to a new high. Thank you for such a great show. Money well spent.

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J9 December 20, 2019 at 8:41 pm

Jesus Christ Superstar has been one of my favorite shows since I was a child. The last time I saw it was with Ted Neeley as Jesus. I have to honestly say that Aaron LaVingne as Jesus was beyond disappointing.

If there had been an intermission or if we had a seat on the end we would have left. He sang with no feeling, heart or passion. He ruined the show. Mary Magdalene, Judas, Caiaphas — all were great! No complaints there. When I got back to my car I immediately put on the Ted Neeley soundtrack of JCS and was trying to figure out how to send it to Aaron LaVinge in hopes he would listen to it and find some heart and passion for the role of Jesus.

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Christopher Mixhael January 25, 2020 at 8:44 pm

Until he sang Gethsemane, I agree.

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Dane January 4, 2020 at 5:51 pm

This was the first time I have ever seen JCS.

The first part was very confusing. I was very disappointed that Jesus had a “Man-Bun”! It took awhile to know what was going on. I feel that it was a little too modern. Judas did the best in singing, considering who his character was.

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Christopher Michael January 25, 2020 at 8:49 pm

Yeah I wasn’t a fan of the man bun either. But I was able to get past it. Incorporating modern items is part of the art. Every version of JC Superstar has this. Watch the 70s movie. It has machine guns and tanks.

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Christopher Michael January 25, 2020 at 8:37 pm

I have mixed emotions towards this 50 year rendition of the JC Superstar classic I saw today in Minneapolis. Overall, I give 3 out of 5 stars.

Pros: Love the way the band was prominently incorporated on the stage (2nd floor). The actress playing Mary Magdalene was flawless. Pilot was fantastic. Annas was clearly the star of the pharisees. Jesus singing Gethsamane was fabulous.

Cons: 1. The opening song was sung well by Judas. But Jesus did nothing during this whole song. It was awkward. Like he was bummed he didn’t have his cell phone. He should be teaching his followers in the background during this song. 2. On many occasions Judas was very stiff like he was uncomfortable and singing karaoke. He needs to be much more animated. 3. On many occasions throughout the show the singer is singing directly to another character, but NEVER looking at them but instead always looking at the audience. I appreciate the acknowledgment of me in the audience but this was very distracting and awkward. The band of followers included. 4. The hanging of Judas was disappointing. Throwing a microphone with a red cord over an I-beam was a poor choice. 5. Jesus, look up when you’re singing to God. not row ZZ on the main floor.

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Lisa Shirley Schmiesing January 26, 2020 at 6:00 am

I hated it. I brought a senior in high school who loves and participates in drama and she hated it. The first half was horrendous, we couldn’t understand the words. I decided they removed the intermission because everyone would leave. Three people in my party, zero stars given.

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Julie Davis February 15, 2020 at 10:36 pm

I just saw it in Buffalo and I really felt ripped off. They managed to speed up the score yet never connected one song to the next. This is supposed to be an opera…which suggests that it tells a story. The actors barely acknowledged each other. It was like a weird concert.

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