BWW Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Atlanta Lyric Theatre
If his four shows currently running on Broadway are any indication, 2017 is the year of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Webber is the first composer to have four simultaneously-running Broadway shows since Rodgers and Hammerstein managed the feat in 1953. And Atlanta Lyric Theatre is joining in the Webber conversation this spring with their production of Jesus Christ Superstar, a rock opera with music by Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. The popular show, which has seen an impressive three Broadway revivals since its Broadway debut in 1971, has always been and is still beset with difficulties. Most problematic is that Rice's lyrics aren't nearly as worthy of note as Webber's music. As the show is sung-through with no spoken dialogue, the lyrics are responsible for the bulk of the storytelling, but the characterizations of nearly all of the principal characters are thin and unsatisfying. Still, Alan Kilpatrick, the director of the production, does a nice job with his retelling. Though the choreography is somewhat uneven, the cast is musically strong, especially in the case of Haden Rider who, in his role of Jesus, turns out to be this production's superstar.
The musical tells the familiar story of the last days of Jesus's life through the eyes of Judas Iscariot, the betrayer. Judas, fearing that Jesus's popularity is "getting much too loud," agrees to betray Jesus for his own safety and 30 pieces of silver. As in the familiar gospel narrative, Judas's kiss helps the soldiers to identify Jesus in the crowd and ultimately leads to his execution.
The greatest strength in this outing is the talented cast. Haden Rider (Jesus) showcases a vocal range that is incredible. At one moment, he screeches like a 1980's hair band leader. At another, he handles a ballad with sensitivity and truth. The only disappointment in his otherwise outstanding performance is in his failure to realize a strong connection to Mary Magdalene, played by Adrianna Trachell. Matthew Morris (Pilate) and Googie Uterhardt (Herod) are also standout players in this production. Morris, in his turn, delivers some of the strongest vocals of the show and is, in addition, the strongest actor on the stage. His Pilate is nicely nuanced and provides us with a new look at an old villain. Uterhardt's flamboyant portrayal of Herod is a show-stopper here, and the classic musical theatre style of his number is a very bright moment for the production's choreographer, Ricardo Aponte.
There are some less-than-bright moments for Aponte. The uneven choreography is, at times, jerky and chaotic. At other times, it's robotic and stiff. The unevenness further muddies the storytelling-waters for a show that already had serious problems to overcome before the first actor stepped into a rehearsal space on the first day. The ensemble work, impeded by the awkward dance sequences, rarely enhances the story or characterizations, nor does it effectively convey a sense of place and time, a need made more important by the industrial, stripped-away staging.
In the end, the problems certainly don't outweigh the strengths of this slick, modern-dress production. In one of the productions most fully realized scenes, we watch Jesus rotate around the nearly bare stage as soldiers administer lashes, and we watch his taut stomach muscles rise and fall as he hangs on the cross preparing to die, and we are transfixed. Whether he is the Messiah or just a man becomes unimportant. For this one moment, he is an everyman asking us to feel his pain. And we do.