Jesus Christ Superstar 50th Anniversary Tour* May 10, 2022• Eccles Theater
Reviewed by Kevin Rolfe
When Jesus Christ Superstar came on the scene fifty years ago, I can’t imagine anyone, composer and lyricist included, would have foreseen this Rock Opera being revived for five decades. Initially, a concept album composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber with lyrics by Tim Rice. Both at the very earliest of stages in what would become legendary careers. The album was made because there was initially very little interest in producing a stage version of the musical. The 1971 album hit #1on the Billboard charts. That sparked some interest and the first production of Jesus Christ Superstar to place in London and eventually the U.S.
I think I’ve seen Jesus Christ Superstar more than any other musical. That’s a good and bad thing when it comes to reviewing a production I haven’t seen. There are beats and buttons within the show that I like to have hit. Without being too negative, this show did not hit a lot of those buttons for me. We’ll discuss. On the other hand, this production showed me things within the show that I hadn’t seen before. The difficult thing about putting on a musical that has been around for 50 years is trying to keep it fresh. You’re going to make some choices. Some will work, some won’t. I respect this production for taking risks. Even if they weren’t my personal preference.
Before I nit pick a little, let me share some of the things that I did like. The first thing I noticed was the orchestra. Which really is more a rock band than an orchestra. It was easy to see right from the overture how awesome this band was going to be. They played fast and ferociously but also had the chops to bring the score to a dramatic place when needed. I thought they were excellent and I loved that they could be seen in the scaffolding throughout the set.
The second most noticeable thing was the talent of the cast. Wow were their voices incredible. The show opens with Omar Lopez-Cepero who played Judas singing, “Heaven on Their Minds”. Again, for someone who’s seen the show so many times, my thought was often, “Ok, this could make or break the show. This guy had better be good!” Well within a few lines of the song, it was clear that Lopez-Cepero had the voice.
He was followed by the title character, Jesus played by Aaron LaVigne. To me, no one had more pressure than him. There have been many great vocalists and actors who have played Jesus. Most notably is the man who played the part in the film adaptation and who believe it or not is still playing the role in his 70s, Ted Neeley. In my opinion, everyone should be held to his standard. I’m sure LaVingne knows this. LaVigne was up to the task in many ways, especially vocally. He was able to hit the high notes with strength and capture the emotion in “Gethsemene” even though he was playing the guitar for some reason at the beginning of the song.
Jenna Rubaii was perfectly cast as Mary Magdalene. Her voice and her sincerity felt the closest to any other production I have seen. But she still made the character her own and fit well in this updated version of the show.
I could go on and on, but I think you’re getting my point. The cast was amazing. Each time another character would come out and sing, I was blown away at the depth of this group. They could make a cast album of this show and it would be better than any I have heard of this musical in years. I doubt it’ll happen but one can hope!
My issue with this production of Jesus Christ Superstar was not with the cast. It was what they were made to do. There was so much that didn’t really make sense to me. It seemed like Jesus and Judas were always on the opposite sides of the stage when they were singing to each other. And it seemed like whenever a cast member had a part to sing, they would sing it and then leave the stage. But the scene didn’t call for them to leave. I kept thinking, “Where are they going? Isn’t Jesus still talking to him?”. I felt like Mary was off stage far too often or too far in the background with the rest of the cast.
Everything felt very rushed. I know it’s the popular thing lately to make this show one act. And they do make that happen with the show’s running time of around 90 minutes. And while the music is loud and the action is great, they’re zipping through a lot of scenes that would be a lot more effective if we could settle in a bit. Please correct me if I’m wrong but I’m pretty sure the original was performed in two acts. There are just so many nuanced moments that are lost because we’re hurrying through.
The choice to have handheld mics was a nice tribute to the original production. The music was so loud that the cast had to have microphones and it was before attached mics were around. I found the handheld to be both a distraction and nice touch. There were times when I thought the microphones limited what the actors could do, and other times when I thought the way they were implemented in the scene was very creative.
Please don’t misunderstand me on this. Jesus Christ Superstar was never a religious or spiritually based musical. In fact, that was the controversy in the 70s. It was seen as mocking the story because they didn’t play it as, we’ll say, “spiritually sensitive” as people want this story told. So I have to be clear, I was not expecting or looking for that. But the question I kept asking was “Why?”.
Why were people following this guy with the deepest v-neck in history? Do we know why was Judas so upset with him? Why did people want to kill him? Why did he get the crap kicked out of him and put on a cross? It seemed we were just supposed to know the story so the production can just zip through these songs at a rocket’s pace. I didn’t feel the bond between Mary and Jesus, or like Jesus and Judas had a falling out. Jesus didn’t come off as this person everyone wanted to follow. They just happened to be following him. I felt like I was just supposed to get that that was the case. Again, to me, this wasn’t on the cast. It’s the way this production was staged.
As I said, you’re going to try new and different things in a show that has been performed for half a century. If it’s a concert, make it a concert. If it’s still a staged musical, then Jesus, Peter, and Pilate don’t need to play the guitar in the middle of the show. It didn’t add to anything, and in my opinion, made it weird. “So are we at a concert now? Or is this symbolic? Why is the cross being made out of PA parts?” It’s clever but doesn’t really make sense.
What did work for me was the set. It was simple, just how Andrew Lloyd Webber likes his staging for JCS, but very effective. I liked the way they symbolized Judas’ suicide. In past productions, I’ve seen them act out the hanging, and it’s very effective but disturbing. With suicide rates what they are today, giving us the general idea was more than enough to get the point across. Speaking of Judas and symbolism, I loved the way they portrayed his payment in silver. Judas reaches his hands into the chest and when they reappear they are silver. A permanent marking of his betrayal. Genius idea.
Maybe I’ve seen more traditional productions of Jesus Christ Superstar one to many times. Perhaps that kept me from fully embracing the 50th Anniversary Tour as much as I could have. As much as I possibly should have. I can’t reiterate enough that this cast is better top to bottom than any other cast I’ve seen in another JCS production. Maybe now that I’ve seen it, I need to go back and watch it with clearer eyes. “Could we start again, please?”