Chicago Reviews

Lyric’s “Jesus Christ, Superstar”: A New and Powerful Treatment of a Classic Rock Opera


Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Todd Rosenberg

The Rock Opera Jesus Christ, Superstar is about as iconic a musical as the modern era has produced. The familiar territory of this show–not only does the story hold no surprises to anyone even remotely familiar with the gospels, but the music, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, was introduced first as a concept album that made its way into almost everyone’s collection–forces almost every production to find new ways of presenting it. The recently televised NBC production went for a bold, industrial look (all exposed scaffolding) and introduced Jesus’ followers as a group of acolytes lost in their love for a charismatic leader. It also set a new standard for the crucifixion scene, which has always been problematic onstage.

The new production at Chicago’s Lyric Opera has its own take on that powerful ending, but throughout the play director Timothy Sheader provides a new look for the followers: they are more easily perceived as an out of control mob here than in any other production I can recall seeing. Sheader has them run onto the stage in impassioned ecstasy, overwhelming it with their sheer numbers and exuberance. From the start, it is easy to see why this mob could be seen as a threat by the Pharisees. Tom Scutt’s design is more elaborate than we saw on NBC, but it feels like a heavier, more defined version of that space with the exception of a large inverted cross-shaped platform. (Crosses abound in this production; dancers carry lighted ones; Pharisees are selling them in the Temple; they seem to pop up everywhere.) The combination of these elements with Drew McOnie’s frantic choreography (featuring wild, chaotic arm movements that at times make the crowd seem less than human) and the base concept of presenting it like a rock concert (leads use hand-held mics and face the audience for many songs) makes Sheader’s Superstar, which won an Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival when it premiered in London, even more high-energy than the television version. There are brilliant quiet moments as well, such as the tableau during “The Last Supper” when the apostles and Christ smoothly arrange themselves into the positions from the Da Vinci painting. 

This one clearly outshines the NBC version in at least one factor: while John Legend made a fine Jesus–a bit overwhelmed by everything happening to him, frustrated by the shallowness of his followers–his voice was stretched beyond the limit by Webber’s multi-octave music. In the signature “Gethsemane,” Legend was forced to sing the ending far lower than the screeching rock tenor that we are used to hearing, especially those who recall Ted Neeley as the lead of the 1974 film. The Lyric’s Jesus, Heath Saunders, has far more vocal range and natural rock style than does Legend, and the power of that seminal song is undeniable. Saunders, who is a highly manic Jesus, full of rock singer leg shaking and other frenetic movements, is more than just his powerful voice. He is a fine actor who conveys Jesus in all modes beautifully and makes it easy to see both why his people follow him and why the government fears him.

Of course, it is Judas who is really the stealth star of this show, and Ryan Shaw is fabulous in the role. From the plaintive melody of “Heaven on Their Minds” to the anthemic “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Shaw exudes the unease that his character feels as he starts to perceive that things are far more out of control than Jesus is willing to acknowledge. While Saunders as Jesus luxuriates in the adulation of frantic followers, Shaw’s Judas constantly tries to get him to see the dangers of a mob. In his death scene (hope I didn’t spoil it for anyone, but if I did: read the Bible), Shaw moves from distraught to contemplative to suicidally out of control within moments, each one a thoroughly believable emotion.

In the role of Mary Magdalene, the only female lead of the production, Jo Lampert’s glorious voice can make you forget her unfortunate punk hairstyle (which was more a distraction than a strong characteristic). But Lampert’s take on such songs as “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Could We Start Again Please” is lovely; Mary’s heart is always open and Lampert invites us in. The Pharisees are led by Calvin Cornwall as the deep-voiced, murderous Caiaphas and Joseph Anthony Byrd as the tenor Annas.

The actors carry their roles admirably but are not helped by odd choreography that makes them rather comical in pivotal moments. Sometimes it’s better to let the actors just be still; it would have made a better contrast with the writhing mob. (The same can be said of the Roman Guard, ten or so actors in masks reminiscent of Roman statues, who are menacing when they are just standing there but far less so when they start dancing.)

As to the leaders in Jerusalem, Michael Cunio is a brilliant Pontius Pilate. From his revisiting of his dark dream (“And then I heard them mentioning my name and leaving me the blame”) to his confrontation with Jesus, which leads to lashing and eventually crucifixion, Cunio makes us care for a character that history perceives as a villain. The same cannot be said for Shaun Fleming’s Herod, who first appears in such an absurd golden outfit that it is too clearly intended for humorous effect and then sheds it to reveal only a loincloth underneath. Herod is meant to be a rather farcical character, but costumer Scutt did Fleming no favors with that outfit. Fleming does his best to make us forget what we are seeing and concentrate on the furious, deranged nature of his song, but it’s hard to overlook the gold and the loincloth.

Speaking of gold…

NBC’s version featured lots of gold glitter. Sheader’s version takes that to Promethean levels; showering the stage with glitter from high above and using fans to scatter it, Scutt’s glitter shines like a million fiery stars. In addition, Sheader uses it during the lashing scene: each time Jesus is lashed a new fistful of glitter is unleashed upon him. He starts the scene glistening with blood; he ends it glistening with gold, which may be a comment on the “golden” blood of the Messiah, or may just be a visual effect that got out of control. (Judas too ends up coated with glittery paint: silver all over his hands to signify the 30 pieces of silver for which he sold his friend and leader. This effect works quite well.)

In addition to Scutt’s set and costumes, other technical elements of the show are impressive. Lighting has always been a key aspect of this musical, and Lee Curran’s inventive design is a perfect complement for everything Sheading, Scutt and McOnie are trying to do. During the crucifixion scene, the lights are almost one of the stars. Sound, too, which is an often unsung but obviously critical part of any musical, is perfect; Nick Lidster’s design is clear and powerful, even a bit playful where he attaches microphones to the Pharisees’ staffs. Speaking of sound, the 36-piece Lyric orchestra creates such rich and layered music that Superstar has never sounded so good.

This is not, Olivier Award notwithstanding, a perfect Superstar, but here Sheader has created a version that stuns with powerful performances and high-energy dance from everyone onstage. The show has rarely seemed so alive. Unfortunately, at times he seems to simply be trying too hard. His performers with their dramatic voices can convey what he apparently feels needs stagecraft to make clear. That said, it is a wonderful version of a musical so many of us have known for many decades and a treat for Chicago theatregoers.

Jesus Christ, Superstar is a Lyric Opera production now playing through May 20. Times vary, so you’d best check the website. Tickets can be purchased from Lyric Opera.

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